RK Gray was able to put a face to the homeless issue for the Del Norte County’s Board of Supervisor’s in their decision to purchase a downtown hotel with state grant money.
“I’m not a criminal,” Gray told the Supervisors at their Oct. 13 meeting. “I’m just an upstanding member of society trying to do what’s right. I urge you guys to look upon us with kindness. We don’t like to be stigmatized for things we have not done.”
Gray was among many county residents who spoke about the benefits accorded them through the state funded Project RoomKey emergency interim housing program at Coastal Inn & Suites. He said the program has kept him from being homeless through the COVID-19 pandemic and his wife, who faces a bilateral mastectomy, will be able to get the help she needs to get rid of her cancer completely.
After hearing arguments from both support and opposition to the acquisition, the Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the purchase of Coastal Inn & Suites, located at 665 L St. in Crescent City using $1.9 million of the state’s Project Homekey grant.
District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin was the lone holdout, voting no on a series of issues surrounding the property.
Gitlin also voted no to amend an existing agreement with Coastal Inn & Suites to continue Project RoomKey for an amount not to exceed $600,000. He also opposed a 5-year $200,000 consultation and management agreement with Rural Communities Housing Development Corporation to oversee the Project HomeKey program at the motel.
Gitlin argued he was not against the homeless program. Rather, he was concerned about the hotel’s location in downtown Crescent City and, as a resident of the city himself, the loss of tax dollars it would suffer when transferred over to county ownership. He said Crescent City will lose $34,000 in transient occupancy taxes (TOT) and about $8,500 in property taxes.
“I don’t disagree with the use of motel services to temporarily house people,” Gitlin said. “I don’t think it should be in the spine of our community. I think there are better places suited, we just have to look a little harder.”
Del Norte County Health and Human Services Director Heather Snow said her department currently houses 43 adults and 7 children through Project RoomKey at Coastal Inn & Suites. She explained this represents 27 percent of Del Norte County’s homeless population, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data. Snow added HUD’s homeless population without shelter count rose from 187 in 2019 to 224 in 2020.
Snow said DHHS has used Project RoomKey money to offer temporary shelter for the homeless at the hotel since 2016. Then the pandemic struck and complicated matters.
“For a few years that keeps going and then COVID comes and we were urged by the state to protect vulnerable homeless people,” Snow said. “The homeless were considered high risk for exposure to COVID and we were encouraged to find motels and house anybody who was experiencing homelessness.”
She said Coastal Inn & Suites was the only local hotel DHHS reached out to that agreed to house those experiencing homelessness. She started the program small with a limited number of rooms then as it grew, DHHS sought additional funding to take it to full capacity.
“We brought two amendments to the county administrative officer to increase the number of rooms, which is why we needed to increase the amount with your approval today,” Snow said.
Then Project HomeKey funds became available through the state in July. Snow explained those dollars came with stipulations — the program created had to house at least 5% of the county’s homeless, the money had to be spent by Dec. 31 and the facility had to be occupied within 90 days.
The county’s decision to move forward with the program created backlash within the City of Crescent City. The City Council took issue at its Sept. 8 meeting with an apparent lack of communication between them and the county.
Mayor Blake Inscore read a letter to the Supervisors during the public comment period expressing the city’s disappointment before they entered closed session Sept. 22 to discuss the property acquisition.
Inscore said at the Supervisors’s meeting Oct. 13 he’s supportive of what the county’s trying to accomplish, adding that he had been involved with State Sen. Mike McGuire in trying to create a permanent program through No Place Like Home. However, he reiterated he was disappointed at not being included in the discussion.
“I appreciate the fact that we finally have an opportunity for a real solution,” Inscore said. “As leaders we ahve got to continue to communicate and work together so we can remove some of the disinformation that ends up coming out as has happened in this case.”
Crescent City Councilor Jason Greenough, who joined Gitlin and others at a protest rally Oct. 8 against the acquisition, said he still disapproved of the plan to purchase Coastal Inn & Suites to turn it into a homeless shelter.
“While I do acknowledge the need for a facility like this, I do not believe it should be a location between two thoroughfares of traffic,” he said. “Not to mention the possible blight that could be produced and the loss of revenue the city would lose to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.”
Also among the voices of dissent were local business owners. Thomas Barnes, who owns property management company TAB & Associates Inc., argued Gray was not the face of the typical homeless problem facing the city.
“Contrary to previous comments, the majority of homeless are either drug addicted, alcohol addicted or mentally ill,” Barnes said. “The public, I feel, has almost been ambushed by the Board of Supervisors. There has been no advanced warning, no public notice, no chance to consider or discuss this public issue.”
Mary Wilson, who owns Ocean World, added the community has very few industries to rely on and as tourism is one of them, she fears the loss of revenue and ongoing operating costs.
“I don’t feel the amount of money that will be left over to maintain the facility will be enough to adequately take care of it. Right now the facility is in good condition because it’s not owned by the county and the business owners maintain it constantly. I’m concerned about the ongoing cost associated.”
Supervisor Lori Cowan said she has worked thousands of hours to find solutions to the county’s homeless problem through various programs like No Place Like Home and Mission Possible’s work on homeless shelters, and supports the county’s purchase of Coastal Inn & Suites.
“This is the right solution, this is what we’ve been doing for five-plus years. I have been on the board for four years, we have been helping people transitioning housing at this facility,” she said. “This isn’t a quick fix. This is something we have been working toward for a long time.”