Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

A locally organized committee dedicated to addressing homelessness came to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to ask it make ending homelessness a priority and to dedicate county staff to help. The committee was created by True North Organizing Network and has been researching homelessness issues. While the board supported the prioritization, it was not unanimous in dedicating county staff to the problem.

Dr. Kevin Caldwell spoke as “a fellow Del Norter” and introduced the Homelessness Local Organizing Committee, which has been meeting for almost a year to research related issues.

Britney Rymer, Community Food Program Director at Family Resource Center of the Redwoods, which contains the Pacific Pantry food bank, said the pantry serves about 400 families per month and an estimated 12 percent of those families are homeless. She said that through working at her job, she has come to understand the scale of homelessness in Del Norte County, and it motivates her to help start a movement to address local homelessness.

She said the group’s vision is to go from managing homelessness in the county to ending it.

She said that since homelessness affects all facets of a community, it will take the entire community to come up with solutions that will last for generations.

Mike Thompkins, of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, spoke of a 78-year-old homeless veteran who was directed to the church to sleep by others who were camped out on the beach.

“This is a burden us churches can’t solve,” he said. “We don’t have the resources. There are a lot of churches in this community that want to solve it, but they can’t by themselves. It needs the whole community coming together and bringing all of the resources.”

Jill LaPell, resident, quoted Sen. Mike McGuire in saying Del Norte County has the highest per capita homeless rate on the state, seconded by Mendocino County. The statement was later countered by resident Phil Eljer, who said there are probably more homeless people in San Francisco’s Mission District than people in all of Crescent City.

She said the county currently has as many as 500 homeless adults and 156 homeless students, citing the Del Norte School District.

“And that number is trending upward,” she said, later adding that Sutter Coast Hospital had 465 emergency room visits by homeless persons in 2016 and 635 in 2017.

“We have plenty of our supervisors and now City Council members here who agree that the need for a community-wide effort is not a new idea,” she said.

Rymer noted a housing first program in Utah, which gives priority to people having a safe place to sleep at night. She said the program has allowed the entire state of Utah to reduce its homeless population to about 150 people.

“It’s been an extremely effective model that now California is copying with ‘No Place Like Home,’”’ she said. “First, you have to have housing and you wrap services that address addiction around that housing.”

Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., was another highlighted model, where small structures are built together in a village-style layout, which requires residents to work within their community to pay rent.

Other models involve collaborations between hospitals and churches to reduce the number of emergency room visits. Hospitals put up structures on church properties and send case workers to provide certain services.

Rymer said there are many effective models, but the committee wants to start examining which will work best for Del Norte County.

The committee asked that the board first pass a resolution that ending homelessness in our community is a board priority and dedicate time and resources to participate in a community-wide initiative that designs and implements programs to end homelessness.

Public input

A resident, identifying herself only as Kate, spoke of a homeless individual she and her family had been helping with food and shelter. She said they helped the individual for some time but had to stop when the subject became too hard to manage.

Kate later said her guest would not be able to care for even a tiny house on his own and suggested temporary housing options to simply get people in from the rain at night.

Winnie Lucero said she joined the group in the late phases when she first heard the number of homeless children in the community.

“The time is now,” she said, suggesting programs be implemented to help their parents get out of their situations.

Jesse Salsbury suggested that many fake injuries or become injured to get into the hospital and off the street for awhile and also have to be regularly dealt with by law enforcement. He suggested creating safe local areas, possibly using segmented shipping containers, as temporary housing where belongings can be stored.

County resident Jesse Davis suggested the board form a community-based working group, similar to its cannabis working group, which researches options and creates ordinances related to commercial cannabis in the county.

Phil Eljer opened comments by saying he is a realist.

“You’re not going to do away with homelessness,” he said. “There are some people out there that want to be homeless.” He said the multitudes of homeless in San Francisco must meet many requirements to sustain services.

“Del Norte County is strapped as it is,” he said. “We have tons of stuff to do. How many resources are you going to give to homeless? We need to make the homeless responsible for themselves a little bit.”

He said he didn’t feel homelessness is a priority issue in the county.

Hilda Yepes Contreras said the issue has been discussed for years and charity organizations cannot continue providing for homeless alone and need help from the county.

Back to the board

District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin commended Caldwell and the committee but said an important component was missing from the presentation.

“You can make all the services and housing you want available and someone can pay for it, absolutely, but it is not compulsory,” he said. “I’ve been in the bushes and I have talked to many of these people and it’s made up essentially of four different groups of people: mentally ill, drug addicted people, alcohol-addicted people, and a small but growing number of people who have fallen through the cracks of life. A fifth group is criminals who prey on them.”

Gitlin said until people are taken from the bushes and subjected to mandatory participation in services, the problems will persist.

“You must make these services compulsory and mandatory,” he said. “If you don’t, we’re just spinning our wheels. I want to see this go away, too, and it is the most important problem in Del Norte County.”

Gitlin said he feels its detrimental to the county, from panhandling to dangerous debris.

“There have to be some laws on aggressive panhandling,” he said.

Gitlin commended Kate for her efforts to help one person but said such people need to be treated by staff who can make decisions they cannot make for themselves.

“These people must be given the opportunity to be in a safe place with a compassionate society that says, ‘We are going to help you and that is not voluntary, that is mandatory,’” he said.

District 5 Supervisor Bob Berkowitz said a possible solution could exist through the use of the Bar-O Boys Ranch complex.

“I know that doesn’t solve the entire problem, but we do have an opportunity for education — what the school district has done before. We’ve talked about the kind of things where Health and Human Services could be involved,” he said, adding that a condition of the program would be to disallow addicts of any sort. “If we can take those people who really want to change their lives and allow them to have maybe adult education services along with child education services, being right there in a community where they can be observed and they can be helped and you could have counselors, that’s maybe just one part of a solution we might want to explore.”

District 2 Supervisor Lori Cowan commended the group’s efforts, adding that she has been working with Sen. McGuire on No Place Like Home since July 2016. She said the actual numbers of local homeless are smaller than what was reported due to multiple contacts with the same people repeatedly.

Cowan also spoke to the reports that the county has 156 homeless students.

“The kids? That’s my heart,” she said. “They’re not outside. When the school district does their studies, it’s ‘couch surfing.’ I’m not saying there are no kids on the street. … I just want people to know there’s not 150 children out on the street.”

Cowan explained that through the No Place Like Home program, funding will be coming to the county for construction projects and Heather Snow, director of Health and Human Services, is working to procure funding for other related services.

“At this point with No Place Like Home, it’s for chronically mentally ill homeless,” she said, adding that surveys have identified qualified recipients locally.

Cowan disagreed with a statement Gitlin made about the problem being transitory. She said due to the remote location of Del Norte County, people who come here tend to stay, rather than migrate to the next city.

“I don’t think there’s anyone here who doesn’t want to help somebody else,” she said. “I’m a true believer in a hand up, not a handout, and that’s what works in Arcata.” Cowan said recipients have to work to take advantage of the shipping container homes there and have to be accountable for their actions.

“With No Place like home, if that goes forward, it’s exactly how it will be,” she said. “It will be housing and there will be services that they have to deal with.”

Cowan also spoke of Mental Health Court, or Intensive Treatment Court, currently conducted before Judge William Follett.

“We are taking steps, but there is so much more work that needs to be done and I am very appreciative of this group.”

Cowan closed with further explanation of the No Place Like Home program.

District 4 Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said he can dedicate his own time but is not ready to promise staff time when a workable solution has not been proposed.

Chair Howard said all agree that the issue is visibly growing, thereby impacting the quality of life and local economy.

“How we wrestle with that’s going to be quite the challenge,” he said. “But it’s been a challenge for many years. Going forward, what we need to ensure is that communication is taking place.”

Howard asked for consensus from the board to formulate resolutions, asking Caldwell to speak with CAO Jay Sarina about how county staff may be dedicated to help. All supervisors were in favor of a resolution in support of making homelessness solutions a priority.

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