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.

Cold Weather Shelter Seamans 2015Here in Nevada City and Grass Valley we are experiencing cold and wet winter nights. Can you imagine sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag with only a tarp to keep you dry and no source of heat?

The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, Sierra Roots successfully opened the Nevada City Cold Weather Shelter (CWS) at the Seaman’s Lodge in Pioneer Park offering warmth and refuge to our people. Volunteers came from everywhere to set up – tables, chairs, food, sleeping pads and bags. After a hot, delicious meal of soup, muffins, coffee, milk and juice, people began to relax and stake out their territory – women on the right, men on the left. An abundance of warm and beautiful donated clothes were available along with sleeping bags, blankets, gloves and hats. Everyone was awash with amazement and deep gratitude. Soon, everything was calm and quiet. The night proved to be uneventful and peaceful. This scene was repeated for the next three nights including Thanksgiving with leftovers from the Thankgiving dinner Sierra Roots had served earlier in the day.

On the second night there were more people coming in – 18 counted. Again, a peaceful night with a bit of snoring here and there but when NCPD came by to check on everyone, things were quiet and peaceful – everyone happy to be safe, warm, and dry with a belly full of good food.

Friday night at Seamans’ Lodge: We had 31 guests, 11 women and 20 men,1 animal, no children. 4 guests slept in their trucks or cars with their animals who would not do well inside. We had one emergency call to paramedics for a guest suffering serious chest pains and shortness of breath. He got the help he needed at the emergency room and was released in the morning to stay with his sister with instrucions not to be out in the cold.

These are the people Sierra Roots is trying to find safe, permanent housing for.

Sierra Roots wants to work with all agencies and rehabilitation facilities to develop a fast track and sustained program for these chronically ill and homeless people who want and need help. We are writing this to alert the community about this dire situation and to get a conversation started about how we can work together to provide these vital services right here in our community. Sierra Roots plans to develop this as soon as possible with the help of the agencies already in place.



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Sierra Roots is very honored to be the recipient of a grant from the GANNETT  FOUNDATION, NEWS 10 ABC,  for our work with the homeless. The $3000 grant has been designated to aid Sierra Roots in providing nutrient dense, organic, and pasture fed beef, pork & chicken at the weekly lunches for the homeless in Nevada City, California.  This is the Therapeutic Meals Program Grant the GANNETT FOUNDATION of Sacramento provides.  We are deeply grateful.

Volunteers serving a Community Lunch at Pioneer Park in Nevada City, California, 14 May 2015.

Volunteers serving a Community Lunch at Pioneer Park in Nevada City, California, 14 May 2015.



The congregation of the St. Patrick Church in Grass Valley, California, visited the Thursday Community Lunch on April 2, 2015, at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City. Their Youth Group within the Faith Formations Families of St. Patrick created & gifted “Blessing Bags” to the homeless as part of a community project for Lent. The Youth Group confirmation class has also previously gifted Bag Lunches & Dinners to the hungry & homeless. Thank you St. Patrick!


‘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.