ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
Jan. 13, 2005


A hand-out or a heave-ho? Arcata confronts homelessness -- again.

On the cover:
Arcata Plaza, photo by Bob Doran



IT'S NOT UNCOMMON, SAID ONE DOWNTOWN ARCATA business owner last week, for her to start the workday by contemplating the human feces someone plastered to her storefront the night before.

The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that her business would suffer, said that she didn't believe herself to be the victim of anyone holding a grudge -- unless the grudge is one against business in general. She was not the only business person so targeted, she said.

"This has happened in the front of Jambalaya, too," she said. "They poop right in front of your doorway and they smear it up your window."

In the two years that she has had her business, she said, she has conducted a citizen's arrest on someone who urinated on the side of her building in the middle of the day. She has had to roust people sleeping in front of her door. She has continually endured the smell of marijuana smoke drifting into her office from the street.

[person sitting under tree, full shopping cart nearby]Lately, she said, she has employed desperate tactics in trying to get the city to address the problem. "The way I deal with this when I go to City Council, I deal with it as a health and safety issue," she said. "There is a health problem in this town, and this is how diseases get passed around."

For her, there is no mystery who is responsible for the various insults to her business -- the destitute, the disturbed and those young folks who choose to live on the streets as a form of social protest -- who together make up Arcata's homeless population. And she's frustrated by city government's inability to either get them off the streets or make them behave.

She is not alone. Earlier this year, Arcata MainStreet, an advocacy group for downtown businesses -- polled its members for ideas that would help improve the atmosphere in the town. Business owners were asked to list the things that they believed would help improve the business climate in Arcata. Far and away, the No. 1 suggestion was to clean up the downtown -- clean up human waste, panhandling, noise, drugs and all other "aggressive intrusions upon shoppers, visitors and community members." ("One respondent offered the rallying cry, `Take The City Back From The Bums!'" MainStreet noted in the official report of the survey's results.) The next two priorities cited can be read as versions of the first -- build public restrooms and put more police on the Plaza.

Business owners are not the only ones on edge about homelessness in the downtown, according to Police Chief Randy Mendosa. Mendosa stressed the fact that not all illegal activity in the downtown can be attributed to the homeless population and that his department takes care not to stereotype citizens of any sort. Still, he said, complaints have risen sharply lately.

"I can tell you that I've received a larger number of citizen complaints about hostile interactions with people that they would maybe classify as `urban travelers,'" he said. "I think that, from my observations, citizens are wearing down and really tired of the conduct -- the illegal conduct -- that they are seeing."

Last Wednesday, the Arcata City Council began the process of creating a Homeless Task Force designed to develop a long-term plan for handling homeless issues in the city. The effort was stalled somewhat, in part because different constituencies expected different things out of the task force. As Councilmember Dave Meserve succinctly put it, it was the "homeless problem" versus "problems of the homeless."

The task force will have to be an extremely creative one if it is going to be charged with solving both these problems. As it stands, with the tools at hand, efforts to solve one problem only seem to make the other worse.


Responding to `oppression'

One morning last week, as he prepared to explain his views on the problem of homelessness in Arcata, Tad Robinson leashed his enormous dog to a water faucet outside a downtown café. A two-way radio hidden somewhere in the folds of his clothing belched forth a burst of static. Robinson reached in and switched it off.

He explained that many of the city's "houseless" -- his preferred term for the way of life he has chosen -- carry around the radios, which have a range of a mile or two and can be bought for around $25 at Radio Shack. Robinson remembered times when 15 or 20 people were conversing on the radios. Mostly, he said, they were used at times when a member of this informal network had troubles with the police.

"If somebody needs help, they can get on the radio and people can come help defuse the situation," Robinson said. He didn't explain -- and it's hard to imagine -- how summoning a crowd to the site of an arrest could "defuse" police officers.

[Tad Robinson]Robinson, 47[photo at left] , is the one of the most prominent and politically active members of Arcata's homeless community. When city employees drew up a list of citizens to serve on the proposed task force, they recommended that Robinson be chosen as the homeless representative. The fact that they picked him, despite the many acrimonious run-ins he has had with the city over the years, testifies to his standing among his peers.

By his account, Robinson left his home in the Sierras several years ago for spiritual reasons. He withdrew from the rat-race in order to follow the path of wise men of yore -- Jesus, the Buddha, Thoreau -- and never intended to become political. All that changed in July 2003, when the city cleared a bit of land adjacent to the Arcata Marsh where he and some friends had been camping. Robinson mounted a protest at the site and on the Plaza and was eventually arrested.

Nowadays, after having mounted a stalled attempt to put an initiative on the city ballot that would legalize camping on city-owned land, Robinson has become the unofficial spokesman for the Arcata homeless. When asked if business owners had a legitimate beef about the state of the downtown, he considered for a moment.

"I think they do," he finally said. "It's kind of like -- the bully beats up a kid at recess, and then the kid comes back with 10 of his friends and beats up the bully." The bully may have been asking for it, but he was wronged all the same. Likewise, downtown businesses, through their alleged control of the police department, had kicked around the homeless, Robinson felt; they should not be surprised if homeless occasionally kicked back.

To Robinson, the "homeless problem" and the "problem of the homeless" are one and the same. The bottom line, he said, is that people get angry when their basic human needs -- including dignity and respect -- are not satisfied. If homeless people were not oppressed by businesses and the police, they would not disturb the lives of the "housed." He charged that the business community exerts undue influence on the police force, and continually lobbies it to crack down.

"When you get here and people don't like you -- the cops don't like you, even the people who are supposed to help you don't like you -- it sets up a situation where people start to deteriorate," he said. The cause of unpleasantness is the lack of dignity accorded the homeless, he said; respect them, and all friction between the homeless and the business community will evaporate.

To someone with such a sunny view of human nature, solutions to such apparently sticky problems are simple. Robinson said that if he is appointed to the task force he will advocate that the city allow homeless citizens to camp on public land. Twenty or so could be put up at the educational farm on Bayside Road, and those 20 could grow vegetables for the rest. Curbside recycling contracts should be awarded to homeless people, so that they may have a steady source of income. Composting toilets should be placed at convenient locations around town. He said that all this would cost the city next to nothing.

Robinson felt that these reforms were possible now that two new people -- Harmony Groves and Paul Pitino -- were elected to the City Council in November. The homeless community, he felt, had been wronged by the city for years under the gruff administration of Mayor Bob Ornelas, who, Robinson said, had little patience for the demands of homeless residents in general and Robinson in particular.


[person sleeping on plaza bench, belogingings nearby]Getting a voice

His hopes had been bolstered by the City Council meeting the previous evening, Jan. 5. The main item on the agenda was the proposed Homeless Task Force. City staff had drawn up a list of recommended appointees to the task force, including six members of the business community, and it was expected that the council would approve the list and the task force would get to work. Before it discussed the matter, though, the council opened the floor to the many citizens who wished to speak to the issue.

Only one business representative, a member of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, addressed the council. He regretted that the chamber had not been consulted when the staff's list was drawn up. All the other speakers -- about 15 or so -- were homeless people or their advocates.

Almost to a person, they strongly objected to the fact that only one currently homeless citizen -- Robinson -- had been recommended for appointment. (City staff had also suggested two people who had worked their way out of homelessness, as well as a pastor, a physician and several people who provided services to the homeless population.) In addition, many came equipped with a laundry list of things for the council to consider.

"One of the things that we who are homeless do not need is more state intervention," said a middle-aged man who called himself "Sapphire." He recited a list of general principles he claimed was supported by the homeless community. As he went down the list, some of his items started to take the form of demands, and some of them seemed to contradict the idea that the only thing homeless people need out of government is to be left alone:

"A). Sleep is a human right.

"B). We support a seven-member homeless contingent on the proposed task force.

"C). We support a paid campground in Arcata, with a ranger and counselor on-staff.

"D). Each member business in the downtown will hire at least one homeless person, utilizing a self-determined probationary period on the job.

"E). A minimum of five houses or buildings will be opened for veterans, seniors, students and workers who are currently un-housed. These resourceful community members will do repairs, clean and occupy the residences employing various supportive funding and private as well as public land trusts. Including autonomous, sustainable long-term housing solutions.

"F). It is our observation that those who have not experienced displacement in the modern context of urban homelessness cannot and will never comprehend it. Therefore, we who are not housed must take back the autonomy and freedom to make our own decisions and solve our own problems. We will demand freedom from harassment as we seek and go forth to regain our dignity on this Earth."

Sapphire's speech was received with healthy applause. When Robinson spoke shortly afterward, it was to second the suggestion that homeless representation on the task force should be increased. He added that he thought businesses should be given only one seat. Attorney Greg Allen, a candidate for the open seat on the City Council, agreed; he called the staff's efforts "absurd," "dishonest" and "inept," and said the task force, as the staff had envisioned it, was "designed to fail."

The council quickly agreed to delay naming the task force, and created an intricate process, involving subcommittees and a "working group," to determine who would be allowed to serve on it. All council members agreed that more homeless people should be appointed.

The discussion took up a good deal of time, not least because several people demanded that the city do something to help the homeless immediately. The recent cold weather put some people at the risk of freezing. Citizens demanded that the city open up its neighborhood community centers in the evening so as to offer the homeless emergency shelter. When told by staff members that the city's insurance policy would not cover this, Meserve and Pitino ordered them to investigate if the city could issue blankets and sleeping bags -- despite the fact that camping on city property is illegal.


[guy sitting on plaza, hand out]Not the city's duty?

By the end of the discussion, City Manager Dan Hauser was visibly frustrated. Perhaps because he is set to retire next year, he chose not to mince words. In its zeal to right the world's wrongs, the council appeared to be assuming responsibilities that the state of California and Humboldt County are mandated to address.

"What the council -- and, apparently, a great deal of the public -- does not understand is that the city has neither the legal mandate nor the funds to provide social and welfare services," he said. "I'm afraid we're giving them the expectation that we're going to do something when it ain't there for us to do."

Meserve, afterwards, emphasized that he is concerned about the rights of all Arcata citizens, housed and un-housed. But he was unfazed by Hauser's complaint, saying that he believed the city had a moral duty to address the needs of its homeless population.

"I don't think that it's fair to say that this is going to fall to the county or the state, because it's not happening," he said. "I think staff is adjusting to the fact that there is a new council in place that has different priorities than the old council, especially on this issue."

One idea that seems to have widespread support is to move and expand the Arcata Endeavor, the multi-purpose homeless service center located next to the bus station in the heart of the downtown. The business community is in favor of the proposal, and Pitino, Meserve and Mayor Michael Machi have all expressed interest. Machi has said that he believes a move would ease tension in the downtown; Meserve and Pitino believe that the center needs to move if the city wishes to provide more services, such as a campground. Such a move would be costly -- probably dependent on the city securing grants or loans -- and no one yet has any ideas about where a new center would go. When a site is chosen, it will probably take a good deal to placate neighbors of the new facility. It would likely take years to accomplish.

None of which is encouraging to the downtown businesswoman with the feces problem. She said that she has little faith in the City Council. She didn't think that she'd see much of a return on her tax dollars with the direction the city seemed to be heading, if the council was seriously considering issuing sleeping gear to the homeless.

"All we really need is police," she said.

Last Saturday, as a hailstorm passed over the North Coast, two Arcata churches -- First Presbyterian and St. Alban's Episcopal -- took in 20 people who had no place to stay. Pastor Tim Doty of First Presbyterian was at his church as the first to arrive were shown places where they could bed down.

"There were three people who seemed to have various degrees of emotional difficulties," he said. "One of them walked in without shoes. Then there was a woman and a child. These people looked more like the chronically homeless."

Doty said that most of the people who stayed at the church were known to members of his congregation. Which was a good thing, because he didn't have time to institute as rigorous a screening procedure as he might have liked. Sunday School came early the next morning, and Doty knew that fights, drugs and broken tables were all a possibility if the wrong crowd was admitted for the night.

People likely to commit such acts were the same as those who the downtown business owners had problems with. Doty called them the "anti-establishment homeless" -- those who vandalize businesses, harass others or flagrantly violate laws because they somehow feel that it is their due. As far as what to do for them -- or about them -- Doty said he was as much at a loss as everyone else. l


The city of Arcata encourages interested citizens to apply to serve on the homeless task force. Applications can be picked up at the city manager's office, and must be returned no later than 5 p.m. Friday Jan. 21.




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