Homelessness happens in Winters

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As the city manager, John Donlevy is concerned about how the gears that drive California’s homelessness crisis affect housing in Winters. He says that he and other city managers in the region end up discussing homelessness at every one of their meetings.

“It’s something that’s really pervasive here in Yolo County,” Donlevy says.

He was deeply affected by what he saw while on a trip to a conference of city managers in Los Angeles.

“It’s something that’s sweeping. You drive through Los Angeles and homeless are everywhere,” Donlevy says.

In one of his recent weekly newsletters, Donlevy reported that Caltrans is seeing an increased impact on their facilities, such as bridges and culverts, as the homeless population spreads out from the cities in search of shelter.

“You wonder where the homeless are living?” Donlevy asks. “They’re living everywhere.”

According to a Senate report, homeless people in California accounted for 22 percent of the nation’s homeless population in 2016. The state also hosts nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless.

In cities with high homeless populations, such as Sacramento, police officers often have to go above their usual job duties and training to take on the dual roles of social worker and mental health professional while encountering homeless people.

“When you send your police out there, you want to have some kind of solution,” Donlevy says. He thinks that the solution isn’t here yet. He wonders what the police should do when they come across a family in a park whose only crime is having nowhere else to go.

In his role as city manager, Donlevy often thinks about how this crisis happened, and what can be done to remedy the problem for the future. He says that while Winters does not have a large homeless population like the cities of Davis and Woodland, the town is still facing the key problems that are part of the larger homelessness crisis.

As Donlevy sees it, the current situation is a collision of the state’s three most pressing problems: access to housing, jobs and transportation.

“California is in such an interesting place right now,” Donlevy says. “You look at these issues, they all blend together”

In cities across Yolo County, people are commuting farther to jobs located in cities where they can’t afford to buy or rent property.

Donlevy points out that traffic data in Winters shows people leaving for work earlier than they have in past years. He chalks this up to longer commutes and increased traffic. With relatively cheaper housing process compared to its neighbors, Winters has become a hub for people commuting south.

“The reality of Winters is that most people who live here don’t work here,” he says.

He wonders what this could mean for the school system, which sees teachers retire every year. He points out that most young teachers cannot afford to buy a house in Winters, and the rental market is vanishingly small. He is concerned by the thought that fewer teachers will be drawn to work in the community, and those who are won’t be able to live in the town where they teach.

Donlevy also says that he has heard community complaints about “group houses” in Winters. These are residences that host multiple adults, many just renting a bed in a shared room. He understands why people would make the complaint. Multiple adults in one house can lead to a street packed with cars, and possibly increased noise.

Despite this, Donlevy has sympathy for the people who can’t afford a room otherwise.

“The next step from that is not having a house,” Donlevy says, and he doesn’t see the practice going away as the housing crisis worsens. “This type of housing could become very common.”

He points out that group housing is becoming just as common in the tech world of Silicon Valley as it is the agricultural industry in Yolo County. People who can’t afford to rent an apartment or a room end up with just a bed.

“If we were to look to the future of Winters, there are problems I can see now,” Donlevy adds.

Thinking ahead, the city is looking for ways to adjust to changing demographics, incomes, and housing prices.

“One thing I think we definitely need in Winters is market rate housing,” Donlevy says.

He points to the city’s relatively small rental market, which makes it more difficult for young people and families to start a life in Winters. With an eye toward increasing the rental market, the city is seeing to it that there will be an apartment complex in the new Stone’s Throw housing development.

“I think that any type of rental will be very important,” he says.

That doesn’t mean that Donlevy thinks that the city will suddenly explode with new housing developments.

“If people are worried that Winters is going to build 1,000 houses in a year—that ain’t never going to happen,” Donlevy says with a smile. He says that there is not enough funding or labor available to support that kind of growth.

There are other elements that he sees changing as time goes on.

“The population is going to have to become more understanding of multiple people living in houses,” Donlevy cautions. As more people are priced out of the housing market, more will be pushed right up to the brink of homelessness.

Donlevy is hopeful that California will find a solution to this crisis.

  “We’re the greatest state in this nation. We’re probably one of the most diverse in this country. We ought to be able to come up with solutions both short term and long term.”

For now, the answer is still unknown.

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