Making the Space to Talk Solutions to Homelessness in Tuolumne County

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(Profile photo courtesy of Dana Butow; Photo of downtown Sonora: Wayne Hsieh/Flickr)

When Dana Butow moved back to her hometown of Sonora, California in 2020, she was determined to make a difference. After several years of working in the corporate world in San Diego and volunteering for political campaigns and social issues, she returned home and focused her efforts on helping the unhoused in her community.

“Tuolumne County has a 55,000 population, but our rates of homelessness, I think, are comparable to some of the big cities like San Francisco and Seattle,” explained Butow. “Even though we’re a rural mountain town, it’s still a big issue here as much as anywhere.”

She is the vice chair of the Tuolumne County Commission on Homelessness, which was formed in 2021 by Supervisor Jaron Brandon, whom Butow worked for as his campaign manager. “[Brandon’s] and my idea behind creating it was basically to bring the public into conversations about what the solutions should be for homelessness,” said Butow. “It’s a problem that affects the entire community that could affect many people at any moment with the housing crisis and housing being scarce here.”

According to the California Dream Index, Tuolumne County’s rates of home ownership, affordable rent and income above the cost-of-living rates are higher than the state average, but it still leaves many families and individuals struggling to find a place to live.

Butow is knowledgeable on this issue as she works as a program analyst for the California Department of Housing & Community Development (HCD). “When I talk about homelessness, I always talk about the housing and homelessness crisis, because it’s pretty much the same thing.” She added, “For every x number of people who are lifted out of homelessness into some kind of shelter, I think it’s more people that are then falling into homelessness from the lack of housing availability or rising housing prices.”

At HCD, she’s currently working on a project entitled “Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities” that funds new multi-family housing project developments that meet certain environmental and economic standards, such as affordability thresholds and designates units for groups such as transition-aged youth or previously homeless. “It’s really interesting to see how that actually gets done from the inside because funding has to be there and it’s great getting to work on it from that side. I hope that it helps me be more impactful in my activism outside of work.”

One of Butow’s priorities on the Commission is to evaluate potential pieces of public properties to use as outdoor shelter sites designated as “safe spaces” with protections against theft and basic services like trash pick-up. There are currently unauthorized shelter sites across the county and some are in the wilderness and pose fire hazards and create pollution in the nearby rivers and most are dangerous due to theft and violence.

She formed an ad-hoc committee to evaluate the land, develop a scoring criterion and rank the properties all with public input. This allows the public to know that the process is transparent and not based on political influence.

“That has since been getting a good amount of public response,” she said, although there has been some push back from those who oppose any resources directed toward the unhoused. “I think it’s ultimately a good thing to have people be talking about it and working through it.” She added that having this information out in the public also clarifies any misinformation.

Her prescription to address the homelessness issue is to provide government-funded bare minimum residences. “It’s pretty widely accepted that people need housing first in order to be able to be their most self-sufficient version of themselves. You can’t ask somebody to get a job when they don’t have somewhere to shower or sleep without getting covered in dirt or having all of their belongings stolen again.”

Butow’s move back home made her realize how much of a difference she can make. “One of the interesting things about Tuolumne County is that it’s so small compared to a place like Los Angeles that there really is room for people who want to get involved in civics and organizing and advocacy and activism at all these various levels.”


Nadine Ono

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