Outside Yosemite, Rural Town Grapples with Homelessness

Mariposa (Alice Daniel/KQED)

If you mention homelessness to anyone in the mountain town of Mariposa near Yosemite National Park, you’ll hear the same name over and over again.

Walter.

For decades, Walter Brooks was considered Mariposa’s one and only homeless person.

“I was born here in 1948 and this is my home turf,” he says.

“Walter is iconic in this community,” says Doug Binnewies, sheriff of Mariposa County. But these days the myth of the one homeless person is gone. Mariposa, like many rural towns in California, has seen a big spike in homelessness.

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“I think AB109, combined with the recession, really fueled this issue,” says Binnewies.

Under AB109, parolees who committed non-serious crimes like theft or drug possession are sent back to the county where they were charged, even if it isn’t their hometown.

And, Binnewies says, it’s safer to be homeless in a rural area than in a city, especially a place like Mariposa where the people are friendly and the weather is great. “The homeless are often victimized in other jurisdictions,” he says. “They’re a preyed-upon population.”

Ron Iudice, a commercial real estate owner, says downtown business owners were initially riled by the increase in people living on the streets.

“We didn’t know who these people were that were in town,” he says. “At the time there was urinating in public doorways of businesses, just sleeping out in public areas. We were afraid transients were going to scare the tourists away, and so the businesses got up in arms about it.”

Tourism fuels Mariposa's economy.
Tourism fuels Mariposa's economy. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

The homeless issue stirs up a lot of feelings, says the Rev. Ginger Foster, pastor of Mariposa United Methodist Church. The town had to have some hard conversations about how to handle this new reality. But Foster doesn’t buy the idea that Walter Brooks was the only homeless person before the recession.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve had homelessness all the way back to the Gold Rush,” she says. Especially in a rural, forested area where people can camp out for months undetected.

Mariposa United Methodist opens its doors five nights a week for those who need dinner and a place to sleep. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church down the street handles the other two nights.

“We have very stringent rules,” says the Rev. Steve Bulfer. “No drugs, no drinking. We’re doing what we can, but it’s not the long-term answer and we know it.” For one, it’s a drain on his small church community, where most of the members are geriatric.

And the shelter has caused a little controversy. Both Foster and Bulfer have been told their efforts are attracting homeless people to Mariposa.

“I mean people have actually said to me, ‘Because you have this program, people come here.’ And that’s a little true but hello, we’ve got a huge magnet in our county. It’s called Yosemite National Park. People come for seasonal employment. They come just to sightsee, you know, with their thumb,” Foster says.

The instability of seasonal work is just one factor, Foster says.  There are other issues: mental health, substance abuse, lack of transportation. And decent affordable housing in Mariposa is almost impossible to find.

“For every person that’s sitting in this room right now, there’s a different combination of things that brought them to this point,” Foster says one night at mealtime.

The Rev. Ginger Foster (left) appreciates the help she gets from shelter volunteer Linda Campbell. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Linda Campbell says she came to Mariposa after working in Yosemite. She had a job here until she lost her 17-year-old son -- and not long after, her sobriety. Grief and alcohol ran her life. But she stopped drinking five years ago and is now working on her GED.  She says church leaders and the many local volunteers who bring in dinner almost every night have been life savers.

“They don’t put us down,” Campbell says. “And this is hope for us. We see people on a daily basis that say, ‘Hey, how are you doing today? What can I pray with you about today?’ And it encourages us a lot."

Mariposa County Supervisor Marshall Long says there have always been homeless people in Mariposa County. “My family moved here in 1951, and there were homeless people living on our ranch,” he says.

And there still are. Long pays them to cut firewood. “It helps to clear the land, and they make a little extra money,” he says.

Long says people aren’t taking care of each other like they used to, and they’re relying on the government to do that job. “I hope there are more people like me who take these folks and actually give them something to do because they want to work.”

Take Blair Chenoweth. He was homeless for a year and a half, living in his car.  He says he came to Mariposa to be near his kids, who live here with his ex-wife.

“I was kind of the person who said, ‘OK look, I’m homeless. I’m here, I’m looking for a job.’ So I sort of called people out on that thing about like the homeless never want to get a job, the homeless never want to do anything.”

Blair Chenoweth plays the piano at Mariposa United Methodist Church where he now volunteers.
Blair Chenoweth plays the piano at Mariposa United Methodist Church, where he now volunteers. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Chenoweth found a job at a local nonprofit. He got some encouragement from Chevon Kothari. She’s the county’s director for Human Services. Kothari says helping people in a smaller town is sometimes easier.

“I kind of look at Mariposa sometimes like a Petri dish,” she says. “We can actually visibly see the results of our work, and I think that keeps us all motivated.”

And people are motivated to help. County leaders have worked hard to come up with a plan to help the estimated 40 homeless people in the town.

Kothari points to a local park and says many of them used to gather here. Then county organizations pooled their resources and created a wellness center away from the business district.

“A place where people could gather during the day, connect with services they may need, have a hot meal in the winter and lunch in the summer,” she says.

So far, the county has housed 13 people who were homeless, including Walter Brooks. But his story has been a little more complicated. His landlord asked him to leave because he and his friends were too loud. The county recently found him another place.

That might make some business owners happy, but he says he’d rather live the way he always has: hanging out downtown where things are happening and finding a warm porch to sleep on.

mariposa-6
Walter Brooks now has a place to live, but for a long time, he was considered Mariposa's one homeless person. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Even his caseworker, Bobbi DePuertis, is conflicted. When he was on the street, “he was walking and he was up more,” she says. “Now since we’ve moved him into this house, he doesn’t want to get up and walk. He doesn’t want to go out.”

And yet, she says, Brooks is ultimately safer. “I’ve seen him in the ER,” she says. “There were times when he was much worse off than he is now.”

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