“The main thing is to get people here so we can connect as a community,” said Roger Pryor as he laid out bowls of taco fillings on Wednesday, July 22. Pryor is part of a group of advocates dubbed “Friends of the Marsh,” who have been serving weekly lunches in the Bayshore Mall’s north parking lot in an attempt to engage homeless people camping behind the mall. This week the group was joined by Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills and Ward 3 City Councilmember Kim Bergel, who presented on the previous night’s city council meeting and the projected fate of the settlement, which is believed to be 113-people strong.
On July 15, Eureka police officers posted a notice to vacate on all camps behind the mall, telling residents they had 10 days to leave and take their belongings or “face prosecution.” This created a spirited discussion between homeless advocates, city employees and the Eureka City Council. Many wondered where Eureka’s homeless – whose numbers exceed the amount of shelter/temporary housing beds by a ratio of 3-to-1 – would ultimately go.
At the city council meeting, Parks and Recreation Director Miles Slattery expressed his frustration at having so many illegal camps on city property. He said interpretive signs had been repeatedly vandalized, city employees had removed 32,000 pounds of garbage over a one month period and one employee had been bitten by a dog.
"The campers in the marsh have not only caused blight and environmental concerns, there is also an unruly and negligent part of the population that has caused significant stress to city workers, community members and business owners," said Slattery.
Councilmembers and Chief Mills seemed to agree that a wholesale eviction of marsh campers wouldn’t be effective, although arresting people for camping or other issues wasn’t completely off the table.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Mills. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem, but there must be some sort of social control. If that’s the only leverage we have at this time, then we have to use it.”
The council also discussed a recent lawsuit from a woman who tripped and broke her shoulder while in the area, and cited the need to protect the city from litigation.
“Most the phone calls I get are from business owners and people who want their greenbelt back,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini. “I totally agree, chasing homeless people from one campsite to another is not a solution. If we don’t enforce camping laws, it’s a liability. If we don’t prosecute people, it’s a liability.”
On the day of the weekly lunch, Mills waited for everyone to get food and find seating before he addressed the crowd. The campers, about 20 in all, sat on makeshift benches and folding chairs. At least five children were present – including a pre-teen girl with a smudged face and dirty shorts, and a toddler in an oversized motorcycle helmet. One older woman with badly shaking hands asked Mills if he would wait a moment, she needed to step away for a minute and get her anxiety under control.
“No problem, Elizabeth,” said Mills as she ducked back into the bushes.
Mills’ message to the campers echoed his words at the city council meeting: A small minority of the marsh residents are responsible for the vast majority of the problems. Mills said his officers had contacted 110 residents on July 15 and had run their criminal histories. According to Mills, 63 had a history of theft, 49 a history of violence. Just 12 people in the encampment had made up 55 percent of arrests.
“As the chief of police, I cannot allow a crime to go unprosecuted," he said. "You have to put pressure on each other. The city is going to continue working and cleaning on a weekly basis.”
“We’ll help!” said one man, spurring a murmur of agreement.
Mills said that for the time being, the plan was to ticket people who were the biggest problems in the area. The notice to vacate was to give people the “opportunity to move of their own volition,” and to protect the city from future lawsuits.
“We’re not going to force people camping here, but we will use every tool we have to keep people safe,” said Mills. “We understand that some people here are actually the biggest victims.”
Mills and Bergel both encouraged marsh residents to seek out resources for housing at the Rescue Mission or the Multiple Assistance Center.
“Where can you go if you’re a married couple?” asked one man. “At the Rescue Mission they make you sleep separately from your wife, and I’m not going to do that.”
Several other residents chimed in to tell him to go to the MAC. The man said he and his wife hadn’t been living in Humboldt long enough to meet the MAC’s requirements.
“What about our dogs?” asked another woman. “For some of us, our dogs are our babies.”
Bergel addressed the crowd and said that some people may have to make hard choices, such as sleeping separately from their spouses or leaving their dogs with a friend.
“We all have to do some things we don’t want to do sometimes,” said Bergel. “The city council and police are committed to helping, but we need to work together.”
“Some of us just want jobs,” said one woman. “I’m a worker. I’ve been working since I could reach the counters at my grandmother’s restaurant. No one wants to hire us because we can't stay clean.”
“Why can’t you just let us stay?” asked another woman.
“This is not your property,” said Mills. “We’re not going to tolerate crimes being committed here. I’ve had three employees bitten by dogs this year. That’s not acceptable.”
As the Friends of the Marsh began to fold up tables and throw away the paper plates, some residents began to filter back into the marsh. Others surrounded Mills and Bergel, peppering them with questions.
At the city council meeting, Councilmember Natalie Arroyo asked the question she called “the elephant in the room.”
“We told people they had 10 days to leave – that would be July 25 – so, what happens in three days?”
“We will begin to cajole people into leaving,” said Mills.
That cajoling, whichever form it is to take, starts today.