NORALEA GIPNER WALKS fast and talks even faster — like she has places to go and problems to solve.
When she was on the Martinez City Council, Gipner was so busy, the city manager told her she needed to bring her focus down to three things.
“So I chose downtown, cannabis and homelessness,” she said.
Gipner is no longer on the council, having lost her re-election bid last November, which the mother of four sons calls a blessing, giving her more time to focus on homelessness. As the president and CEO of the nonprofit Homeless Action Coalition, she is the driving force behind Camp Hope, the waterfront encampment at the John Muir Amphitheater.
The Martinez native and some fellow residents established the camp as COVID-19 lockdowns began in 2020. Though the pandemic was tragic for many, Gipner saw another side.
“Without the pandemic, this couldn’t have happened,” she said. “The governor said (cities) can’t move encampments, so I saw an opportunity. I wanted to quietly see what we could do. I’ve always been the one who sticks up for people. I saw an opportunity and I went for it.”
Her group focused on the rarely used amphitheater, where some people already stayed. They enlisted help from church groups and raised money to make the space more habitable, with mobile toilets and visiting mobile showers. A shipping container previously used for theater productions became a supply hub, with inside lights and a fan hooked up by a local electrician, donating time.
A coalition of supporters
Laundry trips were arranged, as were visits from Contra Costa Health Services and the county’s Coordinated Outreach Referral, Engagement (C.O.R.E.) homeless outreach group, connecting people with services. The City Council and Police Department offered support, while fire crews came and did inspections and helped with emergency planning.
More than a year later, the area is a well-organized, clean, functional camp for people without homes. Most are from Martinez. Some have mental health and/or substance issues, others have financial issues. All need help.
“I can’t … I just can’t not help,” Gipner said, walking through the camp. Most of its 22 residents were working or at appointments (its population has been as high as 35). A couple dozen tents sit on pallets. Near the front gate is a kitchen area, across from sinks for washing dishes. Portable toilets stand nearby, across from the camp’s fire bell. The camp’s “green team” cleans the perimeter daily and does regular clean-ups out in the community.
“It’s not a city problem — it’s a community problem. But you have to quit kicking them around to solve that problem.”Noralea Gipner, Camp Hope founder
“The merchants in this town are very supportive because they no longer have people sleeping on their doorsteps,” said Carolyn Robinson, the Martinez city treasurer, who volunteers at the camp.
Martinez is the seat of Contra Costa County, making it the home of the county hospital, the psychiatric facility, and the county jail. As such, those in need frequently find themselves on its streets.
“C.O.R.E. comes here three or four times a week, to work with our clients, to get them off the streets,” Gipner says. “They’re not chasing around our homeless people trying to find them. They know they’re here. And we can do great things.
“It’s not a city problem — it’s a community problem. But you have to quit kicking them around to solve that problem.”
A job isn’t always enough
Housing in the Bay Area is obviously in short supply. And when it’s available, it’s usually expensive. Most in the camp have jobs.
“We get a lot of young kids,” said Barbara Lucero, Gipner’s “right hand” and a former executive with Louis Vuitton. “Our homeless outreach coordinator found a young man sleeping behind a dumpster out on Alhambra. He had a job, but that’s not enough. So within four days, he’s living in a nice place in Concord. With the help of C.O.R.E., you can move quickly, if someone is the right fit.”
“We have a person in here who’s 73 years old,” Lucero said. “People say ‘Well, get a job.’ They’re 73. Or they’re 65 and disabled. So getting a job is not quite that simple.”
Living at Camp Hope means agreeing to the rules, Weekly group meetings are mandatory. There are chores. Disruptions aren’t allowed. While everyone is realistic when it comes to using substances, it can’t be done in the open.
“We’re trying to teach them how to survive in society again, how to get along, have responsibilities, chores, how to work out a fight without punching, how to be clean,” Gipner said. “We have to re-teach. Because if you get into shared housing and you break the rules, you get kicked out. Our goal is to teach you, so you don’t do that stuff.”
The group has short- and long-term goals. The first is to get people into housing or rehabilitation, depending on their needs. Some stay for a week or two, others have been there for a year.
“I lived in my car, then I moved in here with this lady’s help. I was able to rent my own place, and I’m a security guard and have a job,” said Kimberly Koneig, who comes back frequently to donate her time. “These are my friends. It gave me so much pride — they give you so much encouragement. It’s like a family here, that’s probably why I come back. Because everyone’s gotten real close.”
Tiny homes, big plans
Gipner wants to find a permanent site. She describes utilizing “tiny homes,” similar to developments springing up in places like Oakland. She wants to find enough support from the city to get federal funds. She would welcome joining forces with a larger organization — whatever it takes.
“Don’t just shut this down, at least until I can find something to move on to,” Gipner said. “My goal is to get property somewhere, donated, purchased, leased, I don’t care … this is not permanent. This is temporary.
“It’s for the public good. It’s a service, because you’re getting people off the streets and getting them back into citizenship. How can that be bad?”