The Reporter (Vacaville)
Eureka innovates, but pairing police alongside advocates draws criticism
Editor’s note: In our “State of Homelessness” project, reporters from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Vacaville Reporter, Chico Enterprise-Record, Eureka Times-Standard, Vallejo Times-Herald, Woodland Daily Democrat, Lake County Record-Bee, Red Bluff Daily News and Southern California News Group — which publishes the Los Angeles Daily News — have teamed up to give you an overview on our collective state of homelessness. Stories can be found on each publication’s website.
Over a year since COVID-19 deeply impacted Eureka’s service providers, homelessness remains the city’s number one issue, placing city staff and police alongside advocates and nonprofits.
It’s been years since the city revamped its approach to handling the crisis, as a need to avoid any lawsuit involving the 2019 Martin v. Boise ruling forcing cities to follow constitutional standards for shelter. Eureka recently received scathing reports from the state Grand Jury in 2019 for its approach addressing homelessness — accused of criminalizing people and not effectively coordinating with Humboldt County or providing enough services for people.
Eureka began with assigning Eureka Police Department officers to a team working in tandem with behavioral health specialists, with a city department dedicated to outreach and redirection. The model places police in the center, directing unhoused people to services and providers.
Police say it’s been effective, but homeless advocates are skeptical of centering law enforcement in their efforts. There is no sanctioned campground, and other than a small donated tiny home village, the focus is on local shelters.
Bryan Hall, executive director of the Eureka Rescue Mission, said in December he hasn’t seen an increase in the Eureka homeless population since the beginning of the pandemic. He said he sees “a terrible influx of people that could end up homeless and living in their cars, that were at one time a business owner, simply because they have been mandated to either shut down or limited so much that they can’t survive.”
Betty Chinn, noted homeless advocate, said in December more than 1,470 unsheltered people were counted in Humboldt County during the last count.
Chinn, 74 and known for her work connecting Humboldt County homeless residents with shelter and resources, then said in early June homelessness has likely increased.
“The town’s like a ghost town,” she said. “You cannot run, you cannot hide and you cannot protect anything.
So “They get scared and they get violent.”
Chinn works seven days a week, and said she can get local officials to respond if she alerts them to excess garbage or a need for masks. She opened a campsite in October for 97 people.
“Not even one single day I skip (volunteering),” she said. “I cannot do that because the people out there are so scared already.”
She said she has been harassed and threatened with lawsuits as some residents do not appreciate her efforts, and she’s scared for others’ safety.
“I believe in what I’m doing. The homeless are not going anywhere.”
Advocate Nezzie Wade of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives said June 1 the city has been dealing with about 200 people on city streets on any day since 2016. That year, people were moved out of an encampment with “incremental enforcement tactics.”
That’s when city staff created the system which “centered the police in their actions for getting people into housing.”
“You kind of have to work with the police to get in the queue for housing,” Wade said, which results in some issues if people have trust issues with police and struggle to work with them.
Wade said recently, another anti-camping ordinance in the city passed, with different rules on having personal property or dogs, using public restrooms and many other issues of public visibility.
Wade and other advocates offer a weekly mobile shower service with hygiene, food, clothing, showers and haircuts. They typically give up to 22 showers before running out of water, and work alongside the local needle exchange program.
There have been some major camp sweeps recently, but there are technically always shelter beds available by contract with the city, Wade said. For months shelters were locked down to access due to COVID-19, but now people can enter at a limited capacity.
Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said homelessness remains the number one issue in Eureka as the epicenter for resources like health and mental care, transportation and tourism. He called the new strategy “much less emphasis on enforcement … more on collaboration with stakeholders and outreach based on data.”
The city’s co-responder program, headed by Sgt. Leonard LaFrance, partnering officers with county mental health specialists, is only half the equation, Watson said. The separate Uplift Eureka program uses a city coordinator and two outreach workers to facilitate a pilot diversion program to avoid placing homeless people into the criminal justice system.
A person’s case will be held to avoid “burying the person in debts they can’t pay” and instead they are directed to job or skills training, or a community project.
”When they successfully participate, their citation from the municipal violation goes away,” Watson said.
He said the goal is to not send police officers to every incident, with the key philosophy that “Accountability has to be coupled with compassion.”
“There is a need to maintain order, public safety and good health … But go about it in a way that understand homelessness. Enforcement cant be the first and only tool on our belt that we reach for.”
And while local business owners express frustration with “quality of life issues and crime that they associate with homelessness,” he said, his team also has to follow standards set by the Ninth Circuit Martin v. Boise ruling.
Still “The advocates really feel very strongly there should be no camping enforcement at all,” Watson said. And he thinks ”Self governance hasn’t worked.
“It’s got to be a well managed situation … not so high barrier you preclude so much of the population, but you gotta have some rules and order.”
LaFrance said the trauma informed model has to be part of engaging people, as more than 30% in Humboldt County have had at least four adverse childhood experiences.
“For some people, housing first absolutely works,” he said. “But for the folks we’re seeing on the streets, that’s not going to work unless you have transitional housing and case managers.
”I always tell people if you have only accountability, you grind people into the ground and they can’t get off. If you only have compassion, you have chaos.”
Increased mental health crises has grown worse in severity over the last five months, he said. This contributed to a drop in proactive response by 15% because mental crisis calls are time consuming. LaFrance said he knows people don’t like police addressing mental health crises, but they are always involved even when social workers go to a crisis first.
LaFrance said he may officially add mental health professionals to the department’s outreach team.
”Being connected to people and knowing them helps to prevent people in crisis escalating. It’s really about relationships and how you build compliance.”
Watson added the department has a report on its transparency portal as rebuttal of the Grand Jury’s “scathing report” on the state of homelessness in the city, which he said used old data.
Wade is still skeptical of the city’s approach.
“When we start opening things up again I think it’s going to be really interesting,” she said.
“All the people are adding up, and going to be back on the street because they haven’t been able to get into housing.”
Wade said advocates continue to ask city and county staff and the public health department to allow people to stay in place.
“We don’t want to focus the police in the middle,” she said. “We want to have a good relationship with police if needed, but not that the police control everything.”
She said advocates hope funding will finally come through for alternative forms of housing, like tiny homes or safe car parking, given the severe lack of residences. But, “The city is not in favor of any kind of a camp.”
”People are already pushed to the margins. They’re out as far as they can get.”
Perhaps because of the strain COVID-19 placed on the existing homelessness crisis, “We learned a lesson around the world,” Chinn said. “Rich and poor, it affects everybody.
“This is the first time I see the unity here,” she added.” (We) get each other good ideas to make it better … right now.”