A few times this month, I’ve had the opportunity to ride along with local law enforcement personnel for a tour of local homeless camp areas and talk to the officers who, aside from the homeless themselves, see those camps much more than the average citizen.
On a tour with Del Norte County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bill Steven, I asked if there were aspects of local homelessness that were particularly striking to him as an officer.
“The number of females is surprising to me, now that we have run into a pregnant female and possibly two,” he said. “If you had asked me a few years ago that we have pregnant women homeless in this county, I’d have said probably not.”
Steven said that pretty much any area of land hidden in trees and thickets probably has or had homeless camps hidden in it.
“We do see the problem but to be honest, homeless people don’t eat up a lot of our manpower,” Steven said. “Occasionally, physical fights will happen inside these camps, and a lot of fire department resources are used. They’ll get these burns going and they’ll burn wood and brush and trash. Generally, they just tell them to put them out or the fire department puts them out, and that eats up resources.”
Steven said larger stores complain about shopping carts being taken, estimating that we had personally seen 40 to 50 carts in the camps that day.
“I think they’ve been removed on occasion, so those aren’t the ones that have been there since the dawn of time,” he said. “They’ve been hauled out and they just keep coming back.”
“As we saw today, there’s both public lands being impacted, there’s private property being impacted without permission,” he said, “but they’re not a big problem with committing crime. But that’s not to say they don’t eat up resources and time.”
Asked if there was anything he’d like the community to know, Steven brought up the perception that officers are essentially evicting people who have nowhere else to go.
“We’re not the bad guy here,” Steven said of law enforcement personnel. “We have to go to both public and private property by request to have people moved on, but we’re not the bad guys. We’d like to think we’re part of the solution.”
Steven spoke of women we’d talked to that day who he’d given advice about obtaining services, prenatal vitamins, or simply checked to see if they were getting enough to eat.
“We’re trying to help and encourage and not just be that enforcement (action),” he said.
While patrolling near the cemetery, Police Chief Ivan Minsal said he and his officers do the same. They go into the camps to check on people and deal with them if a complaint has been made but for the most part, they are given the same respect as other citizens. He’s said on the record several times he and his officers have been known to buy someone a burger when the situation warranted it.
Minsal recalled a time when one of his officers encountered a man in Crescent City who was determined to have been under the influence of meth and wanted to fight the officer.
“Some homeless people in the area saw the fight and it looked like the officer wasn’t winning,” he said, “so they went in and pulled the guy off and helped hold him down until the Cavalry arrived.”
Minsal said when he thanked the people for their help, they said it was the least they could do since officers had always helped them.
“I say 99 percent of the time, we look at the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law,” he said, noting that often the person who called police just wants people to clean up after themselves.
Minsal said the only issue his department has had with citizen complaints of aggression by homeless people stemmed from an encounter between Supervisor Roger Gitlin and a homeless subject camped at Beachfront Park last year.
During a daytime patrol in early June, CCPD K9 Officer Gene Votruba said he doesn’t usually cite the homeless unless the complainant pushes the issue. However, he said the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision that law enforcement cannot cite or remove people sleeping in public places essentially ties the hands of law enforcement personnel.
“We used to be able to say, ‘you can’t camp here. We have an ordinance and I can cite you for that,” he said. Votruba explained his reason for not citing homeless people.
“They’re homeless,” he said. “It’s not like they have money to pay for a citation, which is an administrative cite for the city. They start out at like $50 and go up each time they get a citation. They’re not going to pay that. Sure, it could eventually go to civil court, but then, does the city want to spend all that extra money to fight a civil case when these people are never going to pay?”
Passing Beachfront Park, Votruba pointed out some people had set up a sort-of dwelling under the gazebo near the restrooms.
“So far, since I have been on day shift, I’ve not received any calls there,” he said, noting he was unsure if the space is available for the public to use or if it could be reserved or rented.
However, officers responded to the same location April 23 and arrested one man after an argument left another man with a stab wound to the arm.
Noting that tents are often erected at Beachfront Park, Votruba added people often move on when conditions turn to wind and rain.
Regarding the administrative direction to treat people with respect, Votruba said officers are there to protect everyone’s rights.
“Really, we treat them the same way we do any other time we contact them,” he said of campers at the park, “The court said they can be there, so we’re not going to say ‘move along.’”
However, the ruling does not apply in other areas, or grant immunity to homeless people sleeping in public places.
Votruba recalled a time when he’d received a call of a camped homeless subject defecating near Kid Town as a birthday party was taking place nearby. After determining what happened, getting a confession, and inspecting the camp area which was strewn with trash, Votruba acted on the matter.
“I said, ‘That’s it, you’re done. Pack up the tent and go elsewhere before these folks decide to press a criminal complaint,’” Votruba said. “In that situation, I used a little more authority and said, ‘you gotta go, because this is unacceptable.’”
He said if the camp had been clean and the violation less objectionable, he might have let the man stay.
Saying the 9th Circuit ruling has a lot of vague areas, Votruba said the courts need to clear up discrepancies to allow officers a better understanding of their responsibilities.
Where they are
Police know many of the local homeless, some by their RVs.
Near the Battery Point Lighthouse, Votruba pointed out an RV that had recently relocated from another area after being cited for leaking fluids.
He pointed out another that makes its way around town, moving occasionally. He said he was surprised to find one has a wood stove installed inside.
Votruba showed me several areas where homeless and transient people tend to linger in public view, sometimes next to signs prohibiting loitering.
I was surprised when he asked me if I had seen the area in the forest behind the Washington Boulevard Firehouse, as I hadn’t.
As with other camp areas in the county, trash lined trails snake through thick woods, connecting clearings and homesteads. Shopping carts and bicycle parts could be found in almost every clearing. Some camps are more elaborate than others, featuring fences made of tree limbs and structures made of plywood and tarps. We only encountered a couple people, both of whom said they were down on their luck and hoping to get out of their situation soon.
Votruba said he’s on the fence at times, since he feels for less fortunate people who have nowhere to go but says others refuse to stop the behaviors that are keeping them outside. He said some homeless he has spoken to claim to have been homeless in Crescent City for 35 years.
He said police have had less calls in the area behind the Jedediah Smith Shopping Center since it was cleaned up last year. Following the cleanup, trees were limbed to provide less cover for such activity.
“(Calls) have diminished quite a bit because you can see farther back in there,” he said. “They liked it more when there was more coverage from the brush and trees.”
He said people still walk the trails between the area and the fairgrounds, and officers occasionally find tents erected in the brush.
“If you clear the brush, they will go away for a while,” he said, “or they will go back farther into the trees. However, what I have noticed is that the homeless individuals don’t like to go too far from the stores ... where they can get their alcohol and food.”
In the open area behind the shopping center, a tall chain link fence surrounds a storage unit project, still under construction. Votruba said he hopes the area will also have adequate security, cameras and lighting.
Votruba spoke of the Ruth Compound, known to many as “the Swamps,” a large wooded area north of Elk Valley Road, where he has been a couple times to assist the sheriff’s office. The area has one of the largest congregations homeless, living in motorhomes, travel trailers, tents and homemade structures.
“It’s quite the scene out there,” he said. “The Swamps are a very large area and could be potentially dangerous for any of us so we don’t exactly go traipsing out there by ourselves unless we really need to because we need to watch for our safety as well. I think those individuals know that and that’s why they keep congregating out there.”
I asked Votruba if, based on his experience, he has had any ideas on how to address the local homeless issue.
“You know, I’ve had many discussions with my colleagues about this issue, because you’re really never going to cure it,” he said. “Everybody has their own way of life and those that are career homeless, you’re never going to get them off the streets. They don’t know anything else. We’ve had suggestions that if they build a complex where they can all go but still get to places where they can get amenities, and it should be done. If we have an area that’s set up, then we know where they’re at and they’re not spread all over town.”
Votruba questioned whether such an area would then satisfy the 9th Circuit Court’s requirement that people can sleep in public if there is not another place available.
Regarding suggestions of putting tiny homes or shipping container shelters, Votruba said that takes money, which the area doesn’t really have.
As for a location, he said a balance would need to be found between nearby businesses, residences and others.
“It’s a kind of Catch 22,” he said. “Just by the geographical makeup of our little town and the areas where we could put them is kinda difficult within itself. Some people say, ‘put ‘em out at the (Pacific) Shores.’ Well, if you put them out there, how are they going to get to the grocery stores? How are they going to get to Walmart or Safeway or Grocery Outlet to get the food and clothing and things they need to sustain life?”
Votruba said that if an area was properly prepared behind the Jedediah Smith Center, he would be OK with it being used as a homeless complex.
“I wish I could gather them all in one place at one time and say, ‘OK, (county) social services, what do you have? Our Daily Bread Ministries, what do you have? The Vet’s (services), what do you have?’ But you’re not going to get all these people in the same place at the same time,” Steven said. “These organizations that are trying to help them? Sometimes they get through to them and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, it’s because someone got the information that someone is trying to get through to them. Sometimes, that information doesn’t trickle down to the person. Sometimes people have the information at their fingertips and choose not to avail themselves of those services.”
Other issues exist for law enforcement, but balancing the needs of a tourist economy community and a vague court ruling with the rights of residents and the homeless themselves, cannot be easy for the officers who patrol and protect our county.