Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Crescent City Council took no action Monday but held a lengthy discussion regarding the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling essentially allowing homeless camping in public areas.

Since the ruling, camping has increased in public areas to a noticeable degree and has generated some local discussion and controversy.

City Manager Eric Wier followed up on his Nov. 5 presentation to the council, noting Del Norte County Supervisor Roger Gitlin’s town hall meeting on homelessness took place Nov. 14. He said the issue has generated concern among the public and city staff and is a top priority for the city.

“I’d also like to commend our police chief and our police force for doing an excellent job trying to deal with a ruling that was really just put upon us,” Wier said. “We’re all trying to figure out how to deal with it and it’s not just the city. It’s the city and the county and the state and all the states that are under the Ninth Circuit (court’s) ruling.”

Wier said police and campers have an open dialog and campers understand the city needs to do regular maintenance and they need to keep the area tidy.

Wier said the city as actively conferring with the county chief administrative officer and sheriff, as well as code enforcement attorneys.

“Everybody’s in the same boat so we’re actively working on it and our hope would be to bring something back to the council in the future, hopefully around the first of the year.”

City Attorney Martha Rice gave a synopsis of the September ruling, saying the court found it cruel and unusual punishment to prohibit and prosecute indigent homeless for sleeping outdoors in public areas when no other shelter access is available. Rice said the Eighth Amendment limits what the federal government may criminalize, and that a previously vacated case in Los Angeles had bearing on the Martin v. Boise case, which resulted in the most recent ruling.

“The court, in Jones (v L.A.), reasoned that sitting, lying or sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human,” she said, “and, as a result, just as the state may not criminalize the state of being homeless, the state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless, namely sitting, lying or sleeping on the streets.”

Rice said as long as the number of homeless persons in a jurisdiction outnumbers the number of available beds for them, homeless persons should not be prosecuted for sitting, lying or sleeping in public.

“The court did, however, indicate that it may still be possible for local governments to regulate sleeping, lying or sitting in public in certain ways,” Rice said. “However, the court doesn’t tell us exactly what those ways are.”

Rice said the city will have to do that evaluation independently, as well as conduct a risk-benefit analysis.

Rice added most complaints from the public do not relate to persons “sitting, lying or sleeping” in public, but about other behavior for which the city does have regulations.

Councilor Alex Fallman asked if Point in Time surveys conducted by counties serve as a legal statistic on which to compare available shelter beds, but Rice replied that it’s essentially a frame of reference.

When Fallman asked if cities could set time limits for occupancy of public areas, Rice said staff will be looking at those options and may be able to set reasonable restrictions. She said while such actions may face challenges in court, the city should continue the spirit of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to “allow homeless people rest like everyone else.”

Councilor Jason Greenough questioned the meaning of “rest like everyone else,” asserting that if he were to publicly sleep in a recliner day after day, he would be fined for camping. Rice said the city’s municipal code prohibits camping between midnight and 5 a.m., but it’s not illegal to set up a campsite in public during the day.

Public comment

Mike Thornton, of True North Organizing Network, which created a local homelessness organizing committee, spoke of bathroom access, saying lack of access creates a public health issue and potential for outbreaks of communicable diseases. He said while there is a cost to keeping bathrooms open all night, there would also be a possibly greater cost and risk in cleaning up after outdoor defecation.

Mike Thompkins, a member of the true North Committee, encouraged the city to find ways to make sanitary bathrooms accessible, despite the risk of cost and vandalism.

Resident Eileen Cooper said she hoped the city can find resolve before the next tourist season because camping near the wastewater treatment plant has blocked public access to the picnic area there.

“The easiest way is to make another place,” she said. “We don’t have to build anything, we just need to designate a place that’s appropriate for camping.”

Cooper suggested the place would have restrooms and be monitored by law enforcement, such as the former McCarthy Center off U.S. 101.

Council discussion

Mayor Blake Inscore said while the city does not control the McCarthy Center, and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling would remain unchanged even if a camping area was to be designated.

“What you can do is define time and place within your own jurisdictions,” Inscore said, “which we can do, but it’s an ordinance process. It’s not going to happen quickly.”

Inscore said he is concerned about unlimited access to bathrooms, since the campers are not required, but have chosen, to be in the area.

“This has not been a problem until after this Ninth Circuit Court Ruling,” Inscore said. “Clearly, people have discovered that this is a place they could go, and it is in proximity to some existing services, e.i., the bathroom by the Marine Mammal Center, so the idea that somehow, we should be required to provide more services. I think that we need to step back and take a measured approach.”

Inscore said such determinations make no indication of whether the city cares about homeless persons, but that it closely looks at all sides of the issues at hand.

Greenough suggested having bathrooms open around the clock could increase the potential for someone to be dragged inside and victimized.

“What kind of liability is the city putting on itself for leaving that space open for something bad to happen?” he asked. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a homeless person, but it could be anybody.”

Fallman agreed with the notion that not keeping the bathrooms open longer creates a greater sanitation risk and cost. Fallman suggested the bathrooms only stay open a couple more extra hours, depending on staff time and availability.

Mayor Pro Tem Heidi Kime noted camping at Beachfront Park has the potential to affect downtown businesses.

“I don’t want anyone to have to use the restroom outside,” she said. “I don’t want people to be homeless, but at some point, we have to figure out ‘what’s the reason?’”

Kime said she is open to overnight bathroom access in order to increase public safety.

“I don’t have a solution to all of this,” she said. “I hope to help you in whatever I can do to get a shelter built or what have you, but I don’t want to send a message to anyone that this is a great place because you’re hoping to get all kinds of services and oceanfront property, and we’re just going to take care of everything. That’s not the message that our businesses want to send and we want to create a wonderful place for everyone that lives here as well as our tourists who come to town, because that’s our big industry.”

After some discussion, Police Chief Ivan Minsal said his department is working on a plan regarding the extension of bathroom hours and repeated his sentiments that officers are committed to protecting everyone’s rights, regardless of wealth and social status.

Minsal said incidents at Beachfront Park have been minimal, campers have been keeping the area clean, and extra patrols have resulted in increased engagement with the homeless staying there.