Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Crescent City Council recently got an earful of public comments, opinions and some suggestions about local homelessness.

At the June 3 council meeting, prior to adopting an ordinance prohibiting parking of recreational vehicles on city streets Del Norte County Supervisor Roger Gitlin produced a plastic bag he said held broken glass and pornography. He said it was found by “around 50 children, two days ago, who were wandering around Beachfront Park.”

Gitlin commended the council on creating an ordinance limiting RV parking to eight hours. He predicted the requirement to move vehicles 1,000 feet may become problematic.

“It‘s a little disappointing that the council has surrendered to the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California Office,” Gitlin said of the decision to postpone action on camping, leash laws and RV occupation. He said the council’s reluctance may be viewed “as a welcome sign by those who choose to live this lifestyle and actually relocate to Del Norte County, further exacerbating the problem.”

Gitlin said he has received many complaints about the way Beachfront Park is being used and the waste left behind. He said behaviors at the park exceed those referred to in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling to allow “sleeping and resting” in public places.

“Summer is here,” Gitlin said. “If the mindset of this council is to wait and see, I would respectfully urge you to reconsider your reluctance to proceed in implementing appropriate ordinance and addressing these behaviors. The problems do not exist in any way, shape or form in Carmel, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, La Jolla, and other communities, which have been steadfast in standing up against what I can only label as an assault on our beautiful community but not so wealthy community.”

Kevin Bingham, owner of Glen’s Bakery, a closed business on 3rd Street, said he has had a tremendous homeless problem. He said people also have trashed the neighboring building.

Bingham asserted homeless people are breaking into houses for drug money and stealing bicycles all over town/

“.. I go every day to Beachfront (Park). They’re in the gazebo, living there full time, every kind of ungodly thing you can find strewn around,” Bingham said, “in all of the covered areas. You can’t have a birthday party there. I wouldn’t want to, because of the nastiness.”

Bingham noted issues in Los Angeles where disease, rat and trash issues are making national news.

“The best way to not have responsibility for your life is to be a wino under the bridge. No one wants to hate the poor. I certainly don’t. I’ve been very poor in my life,” Bingham said, making an exception for mentally ill. “But for the most part, these people we see in town, if you go down Elk Valley (Road) right about dusk, they start coming out like zombies out of that back wooded area where they all live and where are they heading? They’re heading to your house and to the tourist areas, the hotels to steal for their drug habits.”

Bingham asserted the problem isn’t a “homeless issue,” since local churches and Our Daily Bread Ministries provide services to homeless persons. He said those services are unused because people don’t want to follow set rules regarding drug and alcohol use.

“They choose the lifestyle because they are addicted to drugs, for whatever reason, God bless them,” Bingham said, encouraging the council to “do something.”

Mario Westphal, a firefighter and paramedic, said he moved here 20 years ago but still commutes to Los Angeles for his job, which gives him a real-life perspective on the issue.

He said as a paramedic in a major metropolitan area, he has seen homeless in the trenches, and in the exclusive area where he works.

“Currently, L.A. has typhus, (and) typhoid fever,” he said. “City employees that have to deal in that area are affected with it, and by estimates, bubonic plague is on it’s doorstep. That’s how out of hand it has gotten.”

Westphal said a 50-block area of downtown L.A. mirrors third world conditions.

“Simply throwing money at it is not the issue,” Westphal said, adding that L.A. has a budget of almost $10 billion with $600 million for its fire departments. “Money isn’t the issue, it’s failed policies. They are not addressing the issues appropriately.” He said not addressing the multi-faceted issue proactively will cause cities to become overrun.

“The failures of local governments in cities like Los Angeles to actively address the houseless crisis, combined with the growth of that community and the legal challenges imposed by the Ninth District Court of Appeals is perpetuating the issue,” Westphal said, noting the court’s ruling on the issue does not make it constitutional, and some cities are fighting the ruling with policies.

Saying people become homeless for many reasons, Westphal said the court’s ruling does not prohibit sleeping on public property for a short amount of time, but permanently occupying and polluting them is not acceptable.

“It’s not acceptable to visitors and certainly not to our constituency here,” he said. “We’re looking at protecting the rights of the few that are imposing on the lifestyle of the many. So, no matter what the circumstances of any individual, it doesn’t excuse filth, trash and destruction of public property, which we are seeing.

Cities and counties are being restricted to exercise the right to enforce municipality codes designed to protect and promote the quality of life for all of its residents,” Westphal said. “As a small community, we are subject to these conditions just like any other big city. We’re seeing it grow and grow, therefore we must not ignore the situation at hand and as a community, we must all work together, because it’s impacting all of us, physically and fiscally. As our community representatives and leaders, you are charged with the management of this city and as a community, we are looking for you to lead the way.”

Westphal said while he is not an expert on the issue, the council needs to be aggressive in spearheading a movement to ensure all can use public spaces. He said tourists come for the natural beauty but will leave if they encounter homeless camps and pollution.

Money talks

Tony Barnes, a resident since 1986, said he owns residential, commercial, and multi-family properties in the region and about 100,000 square feet of local commercial space, a subdivision near Pebble Beach and some local apartment complexes. He said he is in the process of liquidating properties in Sacramento and moving them to another state due to similar issues.

Barnes said issues in Crescent City make him reevaluate whether or not to keep investing money here.

“If I deem it’s not a good place to put money, then you will see people like me leave the community,” he said. “When we leave the community, we will take our money with us and we will take our tax revenue with us.

“We pay incredible taxes to this community,” Barnes said. “Think about how much we pay in taxes on 35 single family homes and an apartment complex and 100,000 square feet of commercial properties downtown.”

Saying the problem is specific to California, Barnes said there are cities in America which don’t have such issues, since they take action to protect local residents and business owners.

“The majority of these people are drug addicts,” he said. “I’m sure you have the few that are there by hardships, and certainly, we have to extend compassion in those situations but the majority of these people don’t want to work, they don’t want to have jobs. They want to live just like they’re living and the more services we provide for them, the more benefits you provide for them, the stronger the magnet (to come) to this community and bring people into the community.”

Barnes said Propositions 47 and 57 have essentially made it legal for people to steal $960 a day worth of goods, to be given a ticket and a court date.

“If they don’t appear, then there is no bench warrant issued and they will do the same thing over and over,” he said. “I don’t need to tell you the impact this is having on your largest retailer, Walmart. They have changed their business hours and they are studying their business model to see if it makes sense to be here. I don’t think you want to lose somebody like that. I don’t think you want to lose somebody like me.”

Telling the council, “do your job,” Barnes urged the council to protect the community and those who live and do business here.

Logan Howell introduced himself as a business development professional, who moved here last year. He suggested the city look at the area primarily impacted, Beachfront Park. He suggested when the city hires its new recreation director, that person could be the lead coordinator on the issue.

He said that for $20,000, the city could purchase four large tents and 100 cots. He suggested the city and county partner to find a quarter-acre of land on which to put the tents, and local volunteers to staff the area.

“That model is being effective in Eugene,” Howell said, “It’s something you can execute in 30 days and it’s neutral to the emotions involved in the situation.”

Howell suggested the city and county start with a temporary structure.

Saying he was invited to the meeting, LA investor Jason Roe, the new owner of the former clinic building on A Street, suggested the entire community must work together and look at successful models used elsewhere to solve the issues.

“You really just need to be creative,” Roe said. “You need to work together as a team and you all want to- this is the thing I’m seeing. You all want to but you’re all arguing with each other.”

Resident Eileen Cooper said she has been involved in several meetings and workshops involving the homeless.

“There is definitely an outcry to do something immediately, for temporary housing,” she said. “There seems to be more progress being made toward long-term solutions but the immediate situation needs attention and I like what’s been said. I have been saying find a space.”

Cooper said the city and county have areas that will work, and restrooms could be open around the clock.

“The solution is right there in front of you,” she said. “The Ninth Circuit Court said you can’t simply banish homeless from the streets but you can condition and protect certain spaces and make other public spaces available.”

Cooper said once a shelter is in place, the city can then legally prohibit camping in the parks.

Mike Thompkins, a member of the True North Committee investigating homelessness, said the lack of affordable housing is at the bottom of the issue and having more housing would generate more local business. Thompkins suggested the city work to attract such developers.

“I also think we need to be very careful about making a differentiation between the criminal aspect of our problem, and the non-criminal aspect of it,” he said. “It’s easy to conflate the two. Let’s not do that.”

Thompkins also questioned why more people aren’t being prosecuted for the illegal actions taking place around the issue.

Ted Scott, a city resident of 67 years, questioned what the homeless will do in return when a community helps them.

“You know why the churches don’t do more?” he asked, looking around the Council chambers. “It’s called liability. They can’t do it. They can’t hire the homeless (man) to paint the back of the building. He falls off the ladder and he sues ‘em.”

Scott said he has experienced issues first hand, having lived next to the abandoned clinic building. He brought up the practice of parking recreational vehicles on city streets, which has created another problem.

Looking around again, he asked, “How many of you are a paycheck away from being homeless? Seriously, you don’t have $3,000 in your savings. The rent in this town is outrageous.”

Scott said rents were affordable before the prison came to town, but skyrocketed at the promise of state money.

“We all know it,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves.”

After some complaints about city streets and Glen’s Bakery not reopened, Scott closed by suggesting the city clean up abandoned cars on its streets.

City Clerk Robin Patch read a letter from Donna Westfall, questioning why human waste left by homeless persons “doesn’t seem to be adequately addressed.” Westfall wrote that it’s unlawful to allow pets to go on public property, unless it is removed and disposed of. Westfall called it ironic the city has an expensive wastewater treatment plant while people use city lands as a toilet.

Mayor responds

Since many commenters left after public comment, Mayor Blake Inscore said he wished they’d stayed to comment on the action item.

“I feel compelled to make some clarity of a couple things that were mentioned tonight that directly impact decisions the city makes,” Inscore said. “The city does not have a budget to provide services to people who are housed or unhoused,” noting city limits total 1.6 square miles while the county is 1,232 square miles.

“The city’s combined budget is about $20 million,” he said. “The county’s Health and Human Services budget is $20 million. We don’t have money to provide services. I’m not saying the county isn’t doing its job, I’m just saying it’s not within the purview of what we have funding for.”

Regarding suggestions to form a committee to look at homeless issues, Inscore noted there are already two such committees. One is a collaboration between the city and county, which he has been operating for three years. The other committee is made up of supervisors and councilors, designed to look at short-term solutions, he noted.

Inscore said $371,000 in HEAP funds are available to the county to provide services this year.

“Not a penny of that can the city access,” Inscore said. “We can be partners and offer our input... but we don’t have access to any of those funds. I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said tonight but we have constraints we are working under and I do think this council has been respective of the public funds by making sure we don’t just press forward into a lawsuit with the ACLU if there are things we should address and get right the first time.”

Inscore’s reference was to a second letter from the ACLU. He explained that, as before, the American Civil Liberties Union, Northern California Division, sent a letter to the council opposing the parking ordinances in the city.

Rather than regarding the ACLU’s actions as bullying, Inscore said it should be looked at as an opportunity to conduct due diligence and be responsible with public funds.

The council adopted the parking ordinance unanimously.