Del Norte County residents came out for a second month in a row to discuss homelessness.
But rather than focusing on ways to end homelessness, District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin, who hosted the town hall meeting Wednesday, said he wanted to focus on the “collateral consequences” caused by a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that states prosecuting homeless persons for sleeping in public areas violates their constitutional rights.
“I think many of you have been impacted by some of the collateral consequences other than sleeping and other than resting that has occurred at Front Street park where there have been ugly confrontations, public urination, public defecation, drug use, alcohol use,” Gitlin said, referring to an increase in tents, campfires and people that have become noticeable at near the city’s wastewater treatment plant at Beachfront Park. “There are social issues... people who have complained ‘you know I’m being cat called and I’m being harassed by people there.’ I had a similar incident when I was guilty of taking pictures of tents over there and I was confronted in a not-so-pleasant way. I have great compassion for those who are in need of housing, but I’m here in front of you all, allowing you all to hear the collateral consequences of rules and laws we have on our books that are not necessarily being addressed in a way that I think it should be and that’s why we’re here tonight.”
The town hall meeting included statements from Crescent City Mayor Blake Inscore, Crescent City Police Chief Ivan Minsal, Crescent City Manager Eric Wier, Del Norte County Sheriff Erik Apperson and Mike Thornton, lead organizer of the True North Organizing Network.
True North Organizing Network had hosted a forum on homelessness Oct. 10 where it introduced its Homeless Local Organizing Committee. That committee created a community-wide initiative to end homelessness and has convinced city and county officials to resolve to make ending local homelessness a priority.
Gitlin said he also invited State Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood. McGuire was unable to make the meeting and Gitlin said he didn’t hear back from Wood.
During Wednesday’s town hall meeting, Gitlin also introduced local attorney Bill Gray, who gave an analysis of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision in Martin v. the City of Boise.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the case dates back to 2009 and went before the appeals court in 2017. The plaintiffs, six homeless or formerly homeless Boise, Idaho residents, stated that laws prohibiting them from sleeping outdoors within city limits amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and violated their Eighth Amendment rights under the Constitution.
According to Gray, who stated that 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decisions are reversed “80 percent of the time,” the court’s decision stated that homelessness is a status, not a crime, and concluded that status could not be criminally prosecuted under any circumstances.
However, Gray noted, that some states and cities, including those in Texas, adopted ordinances that criminalizes the conduct of homeless people including drunkenness, disorderly conduct and drug possession. The court’s decision, however, states that homeless people have the right to sleep overnight unless there is shelter available to them, Gray said. Gray also noted that the court’s decision applies to public property, not private property.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought since I analyzed the case,” Gray said. “Every city and county in the country right now is going to have to decide whether or not they want to leave it alone and do nothing or whether or not they want to start crafting ordinances to deal with it.”
Gray said cities and counties could craft ordinances that state where and for how long a homeless person could sleep overnight. He said local governments could also create an ordinance requiring homeless that are going to stay in their area to register with them.
“If they fail to register with you, you could fine them,” Gray said. “You can’t criminalize the fine, but you can give them a civil fine and if they fail to pay the civil fine, you could then prosecute them for violating the law. But you can’t prosecute them for being homeless.”
When it came time for him to speak, Wier said that Crescent City isn’t alone in wrestling with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision. He also noted that city officials are working with county officials since the issue does not stop at any district boundary.
Apperson said he and the police chief had been talking about homelessness and the Martin v. the City of Boise decision a year before the court made its decision. However, Apperson said conduct of homeless people is a scary phrase and what’s needed is community collaboration when addressing the issue.
Minsal, for his part, reiterated the court’s statement that homelessness is not a crime.
“These individuals are not criminals, they’re not aliens from Mars, they’re people in our country and our state and our community and they have the exact same rights that you have and we have to remember that,” he said. “Being homeless is not a crime. Having mental illness is not a crime. Using narcotics is a crime, drinking alcohol to excess is a crime. Hurting people is a crime. And there are state laws in the state of California that both the sheriff’s department, highway patrol and Crescent City Police Department enforce.”
Minsal encouraged residents to continue to visit Beachfront Park and to call law enforcement for help if they see a crime taking place. But, he noted, that many members of the homeless community are responsible citizens who have been dealt a bad deck of cards and need help.
“People come in all shapes, all sizes, all colors, everything,” he said. “Homeless people are more apt to be victims than suspects. They tend to not report crimes because of fear of government. We are law enforcement, they have nothing to fear.”
During the meeting, Gitlin brought the mic to several people in the audience, including Mike Justice, who oversees Our Daily Bread Ministries. Though he noted that Our Daily Bread does offer shelter, it’s in the form of an emergency shelter that is only open from November to March when temperatures are below 32 degrees or when it’s raining.
Justice said the organization is going after rescue mission status and hopes to offer 30 bunk beds with the ability to sleep 60 people seven days a week, 24-hours a day. But its thrift store, its main source of income is dying, he said.
“I have to buy and sell cars to fund the ministry,” Justice said, adding that he has the space and ability to become a rescue mission. “We don’t get federal funding and it is a money issue for us. We run on a shoestring and we have for years and we get a little windfall. It costs us a lot of money to be there and I just want to say we’re willing vessels. We want to do it and we need you guys just as bad as we need the whole community so they have a place to be.”
Several people, such as Vera Baker, who expressed concerns about not feeling safe at Beachfront Park. Baker, who walks her dog at the park, said she spoke with the police chief who stated that the person she was concerned about had just as much right to be there as she does.
In response, Minsal said he also encouraged her to continue using the park, stating that the city has increased patrols in the area.
Connie Battles-Bern, who had worked for Redwood National Park and is now the director of foster youth and homeless for the Del Norte County Office of Education noted that there are 130 documented homeless students attending schools. She said she wanted to be an advocate for education and wanted to encourage parents that their children can still attend school even if they’re homeless.
“Del Norte County schools will provide transportation,” she said. “Homelessness is not a crime and children need to go to school.”
Jim Flowers, a member of the Smith River Fire Protection District Board, brought up a concern about people camping in the parking lot of the fire district’s new station at the old Ray’s Food Place market. He said sometimes Cal-Ore Life Flight uses the area for patient transfer.
Apperson encouraged Flowers to contact the sheriff’s office if campers were getting in the way of first responders.
Sam Bradshaw, a member of the Homeless Local Organizing Committee, noted that while she carries a knife because she’s afraid, the community shouldn’t “solely focus on criminalizing conduct.”
“People are more than conduct,” she said. “They still need mental health resources. We cannot talk about them like they are an other or a they. We cannot criminalizing conduct (while) ignoring status.”
Bradshaw noted that both the Crescent City Council and the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors voted on resolutions devoted to ending homelessness not managing it.
“Criminalizing conduct falls under managing homelessness,” Bradshaw said.
Gitlin, who said services should be mandated for people “who are prisoners of their own vice,” stated that this wasn’t an issue that would go away. He said he plans to hold another town hall meeting in April.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .