Welcome to Sierra Roots


Volunteers 12-10-15Sierra Roots serves the chronically homeless people of Nevada County, California, many of whom have been homeless for years & have severe disabilities such as mental illness, substance abuse disorder, and chronic health problems. These are among the most vulnerable people in our society and they are among the most costly to our community, requiring a disproportionate amont of public health and public health services.

Sierra Roots, in partnership with the public, philanthropic, non-profit & private sector stakeholders, adresses this urgent isue by improving the quality of life in the local community, and serving the chronically homeless & others in need.

For information on our proposed Micro-Village project click to visit the webpage…>>>

Or download the complete PowerPoint Presentation of our Micro-Village project (3.8 Megabytes): Sierra Roots Micro-Village Proposal.

18765608-mmmain“Homeless outreach is an essential step toward meeting people experiencing long-term  or episodic (multiple episodes) of homelessness. It is the means for developing the critical trusting relationships necessary for supporting transitions to affordable housing and/or needed treatment.”

Jay S. Levy, Pretreatment Guide for Homeless Outreach and Housing First

Sierra Roots has been working with the long-term homeless persons in our town of Nevada City since 2010, after one of our people actually froze to death on a cold winter night. Our outreach involves developing the critical trusting relationship necessary for transitioning into affordable housing and/or needed treatment. We are ready now to find or create affordable housing for safety, privacy, independence and self management in community that is the next stage called “Housing First”.

Housing First means that housing, in a warm, safe and secure place with a caring community is in itself treatment for these individuals who have been alienated from family and society sometimes for years. The high anxiety, severe depression and hopelessness these people suffer is only exacerbated by use of drugs or alcohol to take the edge away. Non-judgmental acceptance and interaction with these homeless individuals is the first step to building trust and friendship. We have already experienced a reduction of alcohol and drug use.

Our lunch program creates community gatherings with acceptance and appreciation of all. We have developed trust and acceptance from those we have worked with for the last four years. Our next critical step is to secure a viable piece of land ( 3-5 acres or more) that is close to town or on a bus line on which we will, with the help of the residents, begin to build up to 30 micro houses. Sierra Roots is working with the County Continuum of Care and have set up a task force group to take immediate steps towards acquiring land for housing our homeless population as soon as possible.

Elected officials have to see the practicality of one such solution to the number of homeless individuals who camp illicitly in the forests, parks and under the bridges in Nevada City and Grass Valley. If the citizens of these two cities want to rid the community of the unsightly and unhealthy camps that have been set up on the edges of the towns, then we have to do something else that is managed and planned for the health and well being of all – the homeless individuals as well as the larger community.

These folks have become our family and we care about them as they care about us.  Together we want to build a safe and stable village of micro houses that would serve all who do not have enough income to even rent a room or apartment, even if there were such available. We know there is very, very little available in this community.  We are in a serious housing crisis in both Nevada City and Grass Valley. At no cost to the County or Cities, Sierra Roots and all supporters of this solution are ready to set up a community of micro houses in which individuals can live safely and healthily as we build the houses together and set up sustainable projects such as an aquaponics garden, bee keeping, an orchard.

We would then begin cottage industries to help us keep the community solvent. The homeless people of Nevada City, Sierra Roots as the non-profit, and many volunteers and supporters of such a solution are ready.  We just need the land where we can start. We need big money, trained volunteers and advocates who will help us fill the chambers of the County Supervisors and the City Council when we present our proposal to the elected officials. Please let us know how you want to help us and if you support our idea for an immediate solution for 30-40 people who now live outside through all kinds of weather. They need homes and care. Please help us and let us know what you can do and will do.  We thank you in advance.


It’s really a calling’

At 76, Janice O’Brien is on a mission of mercy

by Karen Newell Young
March 2015
Nevada City Advocate

Janice O’Brien comes by her bleeding heart naturally.

When she was six, she told Jesus she wanted to be like him and be his friend forever. She joined a convent when she was 14. Although she would later leave and marry Jim O’Brien, a widowed father of three, she never forgot her first friend – Jesus.


Sierra Roots President Janice O'Brien leads a Thursday lunch at Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City.

Sierra Roots President Janice O’Brien leads a Thursday lunch
at Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City. Photo: Lu Mellado

O’Brien is now president of Sierra Roots, a local nonprofit that provides food and services to the homeless in Nevada City. She learned her trade helping the poor on the streets of Chicago and Milwaukee. She also is co-founder of Grass Valley’s Hospitality House.

She brings those organizational skills and a passion for the underdog to her work at Sierra Roots, whose number-one goal is to “acquire land on which we will establish a tiny house village so unsheltered folks can live and govern themselves in a sustained and dignified way”

“It’s really a calling,” O’Brien said. “Here I am at age 76 and I need to be doing this all the time. It makes me happy. When you are doing that you are meant to be doing, it keeps you young and happy.”

Her concern for the homeless is also personal. Her son, Peter, died of complications from alcoholism in 2013. He had been to seven rehab programs and was in the process of getting sober when he died of congestive heart failure in the home where she and Jim are raising his three children.

“Peter was very addicted and very sensitive,” O’Brien said, “When he was 14 or 15, his older brother died in a car accident involving alcohol. He never really got over that.”

Peter and his wife, Jennifer, were both addicts and they lived in the woods when Child Protective Services asked the O’Briens to take their three children. Jennifer had been missing since 2005 when her remains were found at Manzanita Diggins in 2009. Her death remains unexplained.

“He never really got over that either,” O’Brien said.

In 2010, when William Kelly froze to death under the Broad Street Bridge in Nevada City, “I had just resigned from Hospitality House and I couldn’t stand it that people were left to freeze to death…there was no place for these people to go,” O’Brien Said. “Lots of people got together to think of ways for people to feel safe and invested in their home towns. They consider this – the outdoors – as their hometown because they don’t have a place of their own.”

O’Brien said she is referring to people who couldn’t go to Hospitality House for number of reasons. “They had dogs, or PTSD or anxiety. they couldn’t stand to be housed with a lot of people. Many had gotten themselves addicted. The longer they were homeless the more depressed they got, the more anxiety they had.”

Sierra Roots coordinates weekly lunches – at Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City during the cold months and at Pioneer Park during the summer – and also helps provide transportation, legal aid and other services.

Sierra Roots volunteer Kathy Waldron serves dessert at a recent lunch.

Sierra Roots volunteer Kathy Waldron serves dessert at a recent lunch.
Photo: Lu Mellado

“We meet them where they are,” O’Brien said of the all-volunteer organization that serves lunch to roughly 30 people each Thursday. “We ask them what would make their lives easier. If they are sick, we take them to doctors. Most of them have no money. they don’t take buses. They hitchhike or walk. they don’t keep appointments because they seldom know what day it is. When you’re camping, you lose track of time.”

Sierra Roots recently launched an Alternative Community Court coordinated by Judge Tom Anderson, Judge Candice Heidelberger, District Attorney Cliff Newell and public defender Jodi Shutz. It meets every other month to deal with homeless who have accrued fines they can’t pay except through hours of community services, according to O’Brien.

This is the first court of its kind in Nevada County, she added. “Some of us visit our homeless men and women in jail. assisting them in putting together an exit plan of stability, sobriety and job search. We helped one individual who was finally able to receive his disability funds after two years. Just working through the system is fraught with red tape and delays.”

On a recent warn day in Pioneer Park, O’Brien stopped by to check in on three folks who camp around town: Nathan, Kory, and David.

“She’s helped me out a lot, with meals, clothing, housing, even spiritually.” David said of O’Brien. “She’s helped out a lot of people in this town. But a lot of people don’t know anything about what the homeless need.

“If people don’t understand the homeless situation in Nevada City, ask a homeless person,” he said.

O’Brien added: They’re not bums, they just can’t afford rent.”

Kory said that among the many obstacles to finding a warm, dry spot to sleep are the police who regularly patrol the camps.

“You can’t camp out, you have to hide out,” she said. “they’re constantly patrolling the areas. But if we’re quiet and clean, they sometimes leave you alone.”

Sierra Roots is always in need of blankets, jackets, tarps, and camping gear. The organization is also in need of financial and community support of a permanent solution to the lack of housing for the poor.

“What Sierra Roots really needs are people to support the building of a village to meet the needs of the homeless, “O’Brien said.


A micro-house village in our city?

by Paul Halstead
January 17, 2015
Other Voices
The Union Newspaper

Can the communities of Nevada City/Grass Valley come together to support a micro-house village and new community center with a supported life skills program?

With a carefully planned and well-funded life skills program, a homeless person would be able to transition from a life of poverty and dependence, (a drain on public resources), to one that gives back to the community. Without combined support from local government, the private sector, and a coalition of nonprofit groups, there is virtually no hope of achieving such a proposed model. Funding would be through major private donations, grants, and multi-fundraising campaigns.

The design of the community center and micro-houses would need to be done in the most esthetically pleasing way, with sturdy, code compliant, construction and with the help of local designers, engineers, and architects. The village could be situated sensitively so as not to be visible to neighbors while still being close to essential services and public transportation.

The community center would have a commercial kitchen which would provide a daily meal. The building would be large enough to accommodate a much needed warming shelter during bad weather conditions. There would also be offices for social workers, a store for distributing clothing and supplies, personal lockers, bathrooms with showers, and a laundry room.

There are very few micro-housing models in the United States which give continuing support to homeless individuals so they can become productive citizens again. This support would come from local nonprofits, already working with the homeless, integrating more productively with Nevada County Social Services. The reality of the situation is that most people do not understand the root causes of homelessness. There is justified fear that the homeless will encroach on private property or cause problems in the community, such as crime, unsanitary camps, and fires.

There is also the fear that if you help a few, many more will come. Overcoming negative public perception and the stigma the homeless encounter are the biggest obstacles to a solution.

There is also the fear that if you help a few, many more will come. Overcoming negative public perception and the stigma the homeless encounter are the biggest obstacles to a solution.

If you want to help, the homeless the village concept is a great model. If you don’t want to help the homeless, but wish they were less of a nuisance, this is also a great model. Everyone wants to have a comprehensive solution. This is the comprehensive solution. Many people do not want to feel they are footing the bill for the homeless by helping them. What they do not realize is there are significant hidden costs to homelessness that consume taxpayer dollars. Doing nothing still costs too much.

Housing is treatment. It has been demonstrated that once a person secures housing, they are able to be safe, clean up, regain health, and focus on new goals. The housing-first scenario translates into less confrontation with police, fewer arrests, and fewer hospitalizations. The cost to society, of homelessness, runs $25,000-$45,000 per person per year, depending on the city. The state of Utah provided apartments for people and the cost went down to $15,000 per person per year.

With the establishment of a community resource center, villagers will have an address, access to a job board, computers and a phone. County social workers will be available to provide assistance in applying for SSI or SDI as many homeless are mentally and physically ill. Veterans, who have found themselves homeless after their service, will be assisted in applying for veteran’s benefits. Those people who do have funds will be required to pay an estimated one-third of their income in rent to the village. This will help defray ongoing operating costs. Others will work on site to earn their rent.

Everyone shares a desire to lead a sane, dignified and confident life. Participants in the village would be inspired to commit to a path of healing, personal transformation, and renewed service to the community. The village model would bring together disenfranchised people who are interested in healing body mind and spirit, but need a support system in order to accomplish this. Research gathered over the past three years is showing that cities which embrace housing first are cutting costs by as much as 60 percent.

Communities that have already committed to the village model have proven it has solved many problems, but more importantly, a sustained and supported village will help people get back on their feet with hope and renewed purpose.

Pauli Halstead lives in Nevada City, California.