District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin brought city and county officials together with the public at a recent town hall meeting to discuss a variety of topics, not the least of which was local homelessness.
Panelists were Crescent City Police Chief Ivan Minsal, City Manager Eric Wier, City Councilor Jason Greenough and Sheriff’s Commander Bill Steven.
Among the topics slated for discussion at the April 3 meeting were four ordinances proposed by the city to deal with local leash laws, parking of RVs on city streets, habitation of RVs and overnight camping in public places. A recent letter from the American Civil Liberties Union prompted council to table action on the ordinances until they could be examined to ensure compliance with the Constitution and a ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The federal appeals court ruling said police may not arrest or criminalize anyone sleeping or resting in public when the city cannot offer shelter.
Gitlin questioned the timing of the letter, which he said came “at the 11th hour” before ordinances were to be approved.
Wier explained the city has been working to protect everyone’s rights when it comes to the use of public places.
He said proposed ordinances would have prohibited camping in most areas and contained exceptions for homeless persons.
“The ordinances would not restrict the right of anyone to go and take a nap but you just couldn’t camp there,” Wier said. “That was really the intent of the ordinance.”
Leash laws would require animals be leashed, rather than “under one’s control” so as to protect everyone, he said. Parking regulations were aimed at oversize vehicles, namely motorhomes and travel trailers. Currently, parking is allowed for up to 72 hours.
“This new ordinance would bring that down to eight hours,” Wier said, “allowing anyone to come, park their vehicle, enjoy the public place for the day, and then they would need to move that vehicle at least 1,000 feet.”
Wier said the ACLU letter came in after the most recent council agenda was posted, and the ordinances were set for adoption April 1. The ACLU letter and city response were posted online and on social media.
“It was decided that these items should be tabled, due to a late letter we received from the ACLU,” the city response stated.
Wier said the ACLU asserted adoption of the ordinances could violate the constitutional rights of unhoused people and people with disabilities.
“If the ordinance were to be passed in its current form, it would give rise to a claim for injunctive relief and subject the City to protracted litigation and avoidable legal expense,” the ACLU letter read.
City council opted to table approval of the ordinances to scrutinize whether the ordinances align with the ACLU. Wier repeated that through the ordinances, the city hopes to make public spaces open and welcoming to all.
“While the city does not agree with the ACLU's overall assessment of the proposed ordinances, the city does believe it is in its best interest to review and evaluate each argument raised by the ACLU, and make any adjustments if deemed prudent or necessary, before taking final action,” the city response stated.
“A lot of people in this room feel that our city is under siege,” Gitlin said to Wier. “We can’t go and enjoy iconic places without being assaulted with collateral behavior other than sleeping and resting... public urinating, public defecation, disturbing the peace, cursing, dogs that aren’t on leash and just general antisocial and sometimes illegal behavior.”
Gitlin asked Wier if the held status of the ordinances is a momentary pause to work on the ordinances, following the late-received ACLU letter.
“The appearance is that they have bullied us into a ‘don’t do this or else’ kind of mentality,” Gitlin told Wier.
Gitlin asked Wier to respond to concerns the city will soon have ordinances ready for adoption, despite the ACLU’s approach.
“What I can tell you is that we will do our due diligence as staff to fully evaluate any concerns brought up,” Wier responded. “Whoever who brings up these concerns, it’s our job as staff to get the council the information they need.”
Wier said if nothing changes, the ordinances will return for adoption, and if changes are needed, the ordinances will need to be reintroduced and adopted later.
Wier commended local law enforcement for their work in dealing with conflicts.
“If there is a violation of anyone’s rights or any laws are being broken, the 9th Circuit Court does not have jurisdiction over that,” he said. “They need to communicate with the police department and they will come out to address those things.”
Police Chief Ivan Minsal first responded to leash law concerns, saying the current law is very liberal and does not mandate leashes, which the council hopes to fix.
As for some of the behaviors Gitlin brought up, Minsal said that while some behaviors may be considered inappropriate, they may not be illegal.
“Under the 14th Amendment, everyone has due process, whether you’ve been a resident for 30 years or still new to our community,” he said. “In our city, in our country, everyone is treated the same under the law.”
Beverly Cepeck, a resident living near Pebble Beach, said she was in full support of proposed city ordinances. She asked if such issues were to be addressed in the county as well as the city.
“You should be doing this in some sort of coordinated effort, because we have equal issues in the county as we have in the city,” she said.
“If these ordinances appear to withstand the metal test of ACLU scrutiny, a 9th District Court of Appeals scrutiny, and are adopted by the city, this is a great trailblazer in not having to reinvent the wheel, so that’s my intention on the board of supervisors, representing the county,” Gitlin replied.
Wier said while the city has taken the lead on the issues, governments are still struggling with complying to the federal court’s decision.
“There are not a lot of communities passing ordinances like what the city has before it,” he said, adding that the county can certainly follow suit if desired.
Resident Eileen Cooper noted the predicaments of both the city and its homeless population.
“The homeless do need a safe place, and it is impractical for many of them to live a life packing up and out all the time,” she said. “I do think we need to step up to the plate and take responsibility. If we don’t take responsibility, our tourist attractions are going to be marred, our natural resources are going to be scarred, as they have been in the past as evidenced by all of our cleanups. The county and the city have a vested interest in taking responsibility for this.”
Cooper suggested creation of an open, safe area in the city with bathrooms and showers, near mental health services.
Resident Jenny Rosa said she has been here for seven years and feels the homeless situation has increased. She said houses and cars have been broken into in all areas of the city.
“I care for these people that are homeless and I have had friends that are homeless, but the drugs and dangers to all of us... look at all these people that are mostly senior citizens here, we can’t defend ourselves,” she said, “so we leave it up to you. You’re helping us, so I want you to keep up the good work and maybe you could check dog licenses and bike permits — they steal bikes left and right here.”
True North Organizing Network member Mike Thornton, said he appreciates the work done by the city and law enforcement on such tough issues. Thornton said he worked with the county on its recent Point in Time Count, a census of local homeless people, saying 350 adults and about 200 students are homeless in and around the city.
“According to Social Services, many of those people are long-term residents of this area,” he said. “They are not transients.” Thornton said the core of the issue is that most have nowhere safe to go, which results in the behaviors that most residents don’t want to see.
“In addition, there are people who are mentally ill,” he said. “They are sick and need treatment. They are drug addicted. They are sick. They need treatment.”
Running out of time, Thornton asked “what roles you’ll be playing in helping those needs to be addressed in a positive manner that protects all of these people and respects the dignity and constitutional rights of people who have to be without shelter.”
Gitlin responded by noting a recent cleanup of an encampment near Battery Point Lighthouse saying he talked to some of the people camped there.
“Mike, not everybody who purports to be homeless are all that homeless,” Gitlin said. “We talked to a couple people there (who said) ‘Oh, I’m not homeless.’ They admitted that they live in Brookings and were having a good time and are having fun.”
Gitlin asked how it will be possible to separate those in need from those just having fun.
“Those people who are wreaking havoc on our community, how does one do that?” he asked.
“You bring expertise and the corrective work and authority of all you people to bear, to actually address those issues,” Thornton replied from his seat. “That’s how it gets done.”
“In the real world, there are things that go on, that people are doing,” Gitlin replied. “They have free will to do this. The mess that they left at the iconic Battery Point was horrific. Two truckloads of garbage were removed in that beautiful area and people said ‘we’re not going down there anymore.’ Now, that translates into real dollars and cents and into our tourist season which is right upon us.”
County resident David Cooper questioned whether the proposed ordinances said to be unconstitutional by the ACLU were examined for state and federal constitutionality by the city.
City Councilor Jason Greenough said extensive discussion ensued about the ordinances.
“The fact that we are bringing these ordinances to bear is a testament to the frustration in our community,” he said. “We want to make sure that all of our Is are dotted and our Ts are crossed so if and when the ACLU brings a suit, it’s not an easy suit.”
Greenough said the ordinances were tested for constitutionality, but the ACLU letter brought up some good points.
From the Shelter
Mike Justice, manager of Our Daily Bread Ministry and shelter, noted the shelter has 13 permitted beds and many who use the shelter were working and lost jobs or have fallen on hard times.
He said while some homeless people create problems, they do not represent all homeless people.
“It doesn’t take many to give a bad name to it all,” Justice said. “There’s tons of trash out there. We did probably 22 cleanups in a year and a half and I totally understand what that looks like.”
Justice said the mission doesn’t let people in who are known to cause problems or disobey rules by drinking or doing drugs.
“There are really good people that are homeless and that’s what I see,” he said. “When we shelter, we are booked out every single night. We will be booked out tonight with women with kids, who are actually struggling, because they lost their job or got cut off food stamps or whatever. Not all of them are out there to make problems for people.”
Justice closed by reminding he hopes to soon expand the shelter to 52 beds to give people a warm place in the winter where they can just be.
Gitlin responded by saying the discussion was not about those who cause no problems.
“We’re talking about people, and it may be a small segment, but they’re very boisterous,” he said. “The problems are not coming out of imagination, they’re coming out of reality. Some people are not behaving responsibly, whether it’s because of mental illness, whether it’s drug addiction or some other aspect of criminality, we’re not talking about that small amount of people that have actually fallen through the cracks of life. No one here feels anything but empathy for those people and wants to help them.”
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bill Steven agreed with Justice, saying many homeless people do not draw the attention of law enforcement. He also addressed potential collaboration between city and county staff.
“I know the city has the lion’s share of the problem,” Steven said. “You have your issues at Beachfront Park, but the county really doesn’t really have an equivalent. Now, we know that we have homeless people everywhere. They’re noticed in Smith River, Klamath, I’ve even known a person to be homeless in Hiouchi once, but we don’t have it on the same scale that the city is seeing right now.”
Steven said while efforts are being made at the county level to address issues, the city has taken the lead out of necessity, as it’s seeing a greater number of homeless.
County resident Joel Mansfield said he was a Berkeley police officer for 20 years and has dealt with a range of such issues, and offered a warning about setting up a designated area for homeless persons.
“Be careful when setting up a camp for them,” he said. “We had Rainbow Village in Berkeley, started out an absolute experiment, the drugs moved in and we ended it with a triple homicide.”
Victoria Dickie cautioned officials not to enable those who do not need help but to assist those who do
“I honestly don’t understand how people believe that I should personally care more about their livelihood, their care, their whatever, than they do,” she said. “I’m not talking about people who cannot help themselves. They are a different group of people but people who choose not to — I don’t want to feed them, I don’t want to clothe them, I don’t want to put them up, I would help them, but...” Dickie stopped mid-sentence, realizing her time was up as a few people clapped loudly.
Wier said city council’s direction is to ensure public spaces can be enjoyed by all but there are many facets to the problem and limited resources to deal with them. Wier noted Sen. Mike McGuire’s upcoming town hall meeting, where he will discuss what will be done with available funding in the next year and details of a long term homeless plan.
Greenough assured the audience the topic was not being placed on a back burner and encouraged people to be more involved in discussions.
Gitlin took the microphone to close the topic, saying all the money in the world cannot force someone to get help if they do not want it.
“Unless we can mandate that you may not live in the bushes, all we’re doing is recycling this,” he said. “Even with all the budget in the world, they cannot be escorted out of that location into a safe place to get a hot meal, a hot shower and a warm cot and a place to be treated like a human being.
“That is the component that is driving this,” Gitlin said, also later noting, “As for Senator McGuire’s town hall when he says we’re going to throw $1 million at this, and the guy in the bushes says ‘I’m not moving...’ Subject over.”
McGuire’s town hall meeting will take place April 18 at 6 p.m. in Joe Hamilton School to further discuss solutions, resources, short and long-term goals and what’s in the works.