By Lisa Schliff

It is no secret that Nevada County has people with no homes and suffering from mental illness. There are several mental health clinics that offer free or low-cost services. Nevada County Health and Human Services has an entire department dedicated to children and juveniles. Adults are assisted in acquiring social, eligibility and employment training under the auspices of the DDS (Department of Social Services). Chapa-De Health Care Center serves more than 24,000 patients, with about 29 percent being Native American and facilities in Grass Valley and Auburn. Janella Kirkman, Executive Director of the Spirit Center, estimates 55% of their clientele are without homes. Clearly, there is a need for mental health services for homeless and low-income residents in Nevada County.

Housing is so closely connected with mental health, that Kirkman perceives it as the biggest challenge to her clients overcoming mental illness. Many of them have difficulty getting along and working with others in shared housing. They find rules, teamwork, and an orderly life overwhelming, which causes some of them to head back to the woods with their tents. Along with suffering, mental illness creates a cycle of poverty and homelessness.

Spirit Center addresses the needs of people in crisis, or struggling with chronic mental illness and substance abuse. It offers an array of services including crisis counseling, recovery plans, support groups, free hot showers, and Saturday brunch. It even boasts a Garden Project where folks can come and ‘get their hands dirty, release stress and move on.’

Kirkman is particularly proud of their Peer Support Training Program, a 16-week course which assists participants in developing self-care skills as well as sensitivity in listening to others in a supportive and nonjudgmental manner. Through this program and RAP (Recovery Action Plan), the center aims to get people well enough to find and keep a job. She herself took these programs and became a peer counselor before landing the top position at the center.

Clients find their way to Spirit Center via referrals from the Sierra Hospital Emergency Department, Hospitality House, various other agencies in Nevada County and word-of-mouth. As a result, clientele has been growing over the years, and therefore so have costs. However, funding has not kept up with the growth of demand and in fact, has inversely been decreasing. The center has been receiving money through Prop. 63 since 2005, but this funding source fluctuates so counties are circumspect in doling it out. Due to budget cuts going back 3 years, Spirit Center has been forced to lay off staff by fifty percent. Ironically, now more than ever they need increased funding and staff to attend to the needs of their growing demand. Fundraising events help but do not provide enough to cover the entire budget.

How can we as Democrats help out? We can let our elected officials know how important increased funding is for mental health services. Additionally, Spirit Center is always ready to put volunteers to work, which alleviates the workload of staff who are spread thin, so give them a call and see what you can do to help. Volunteers serve roles as varied as peer counselors (you need to take the course), fundraisers, board members, and legal and financial advisers. Donations of food and money are also welcome, of course. There is also a wish list on their website to fulfill. Check it out at

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