In my time here, I’ve heard several people talk about homeless issues as if Crescent City is a magnet for them and we have a unique problem. However, working as a reporter on the Mendocino Coast for 12 years, I can assure you, it’s not the case.
There, I wrote just as many or more stories about campsite cleanups, trespassing, community concerns, city ordinances and police issues. I even recall a story about a local man who fenced off a significant portion of city property to keep people from camping near his yard.
Fort Bragg is about half the size of Crescent City, geographically. However, it’s also right on the coast and due to declines in fishing and timber, has transitioned to a more tourism based economy. It’s fairly remote, with a similar climate, many coastal access points and vast wooded areas for homeless people to camp out of view. It also has a mission that provides shelter and food for many people, and a centrally located homeless services facility. While it has many similarities to Crescent City, it’s just one of many northern California cities struggling to balance the needs of its now tourism-based businesses, its residents, and those who camp in its forests and underbrush.
Thursday, I spoke with Marie Jones, Fort Bragg’s community development director about whether homelessness there has increased in the last five years and how the city is dealing with the issues.
Jones said their police department recently completed a report saying as much as 70 percent of its calls relate, in some way, to homeless issues.
“The vast majority of those calls do not result in citations or arrest, because no crime has been committed or because no one is willing to press changes,” said a city council staff report. “Most officer-transient interactions relate to managing behavioral health issues. Under current state law, many of the behavior issues are not arrestable offenses.”
Jones said the city spends another 10 percent of time on code enforcement and cleanup issues related to homelessness.
“That’s a really big use of city resources,” she said. “We are coming to the reality that we are not going to solve homelessness but we can reduce it with permanent supportive housing.”
By comparison, Crescent City Police Chief Ivan Minsal estimated his department responds to between 100 and 150 homeless-related calls per week, which is about 15 percent of the overall call volume.
Encampment trash has also been a huge issue there, as many encampments overlook wetland areas.
“We cleaned up five encampments last year,” she said. “Altogether, I think we hauled out 80 cubic yards of debris, some of which had been there for years.”
She said Fort Bragg is also working with Caltrans to clean up encampments under Highway 1 bridges and roadside campsites.
She said the city has also been working with several property owners whose land has been used for camping and illegal dumping, to put up fencing and barriers.
“On the opposite side of that, we’re also in the process of getting 68 affordable housing units built,” she said.
Jones said the city was awarded a $3 million HEAP (Housing Energy Assistance Program) grant to build 68 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless seniors, veterans and families. However, in order to spend the funding, the city needed to declare a local shelter crisis, which it did in April.
Consultant Robert Marbut PH.D., an expert in homelessness, came up with 28 recommended action steps to address homelessness there, which were later endorsed by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. The full report can be viewed at https://www.mendocinocounty.org/home/showdocument?id=20042 class="Apple-converted-space">
Jones noted a few non profit groups are assisting the city, including Street Medicine, a pair of registered nurses who visit homeless areas to make sure mentally ill subjects are receiving and taking their medications.
Finding up-to-date numbers and information about regional homeless populations was a hot-potato exercise in leaving messages and being told, “The person you need to talk to is...” and leaving more messages.
Preliminary data from Del Norte County’s Point in Time count estimated that 189 adults are without shelter locally. Jesse, a formerly homeless man who now volunteers at Our Daily Bread Ministries mission, said that number could be less than half of Del Norte’s actual homeless population.
According to the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 1,470 unsheltered people in neighboring Humboldt County.
Arcata Deputy Director of Community Development Jennifer Dart said the numbers are typically higher than shown in surveys, as some simply don’t want to talk to officials or fill out forms. Numbers were up significantly from last year, which Dart said is most likely due to a simpler, shorter survey form this year.
“More than 140 volunteers from across the county participated in the count, which takes place in communities across the U.S. on a single night in January, as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),” according to a release from Humboldt DHHS. “Numbers from the count are used by the state of California to allocate funding to counties to address homelessness and housing.
Humboldt’s finalized Point in Time numbers tallied 653 people in Eureka, 263 in Arcata-Manila, 220 in Garberville, 121 in McKinleyville, 83 in the Fortuna area, 30 in Rio Dell, 14 in Orick and six in Trinidad.
Numbers from nearby Brookings and Gold Beach, Oregon could not be located as of press time.
Numbers were also limited by certain HUD requirements, which may not have counted persons temporarily staying with friends or family.
“For the unsheltered portion of the PIT, volunteers could only count people who fall under the HUD definition: An individual or family with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport or campground,” the Humboldt County release said.
Current numbers from Fort Bragg were also hard to pin down, but Jones said the visible numbers on the streets have gone down since last year. The city adopted a no panhandling ordinance over a decade ago, which reduced the visibility of homeless persons but police remain busy answering related calls. According to staff reports there, Fort Bragg had about 81 homeless people with an additional 15 to 17 living outside the city limits in 2018.
Asked if homelessness is an issue that comes up regularly at public meetings in Arcata, Dart said it certainly is.
She said Arcata has no specific ordinances regulating panhandling, but residents and students have brought up concerns for safety in some areas where homeless frequently camp.
She said Arcata has seen no real increases in public area camping since the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that cities cannot criminalize sleeping or resting in public areas.
However, she said RVs being parked on public streets for housing has become an issue in Arcata.
Calls to the Arcata Police Department were not returned as of press time.
However, Arcata is also active in applying for funding and was recently awarded $400,000 in HEAP funds. She said the city will use the money to develop a sort of pilot program in collaboration with a local mobile home park, to purchase five units of affordable rental housing for homeless and at-risk people.
“We have about 600 affordable units in Arcata right now,” she said. Asked what “affordable” means in actual dollars, Dart said it varies, depending on the funding source and area. “It can be pretty confusing,” she said.
Dart said the City of Arcata is looking at other avenues and potential partnerships to create permanent supportive housing there.
Crescent City is unique in many ways, and it would likely be impossible to find a mirror city in which to copy when it comes to homeless solutions. Perhaps we can still glean some applicable ideas from our neighbors while proactively looking at the societal issues that lead to homelessness to balance economic and humanitarian needs.