The Eureka City Council meets today with an ambitious slate of items to discuss — many concerning the ongoing issue of homeless people camped in the city’s greenbelt areas. On the agenda: an ordinance regulating the storage of personal property in public areas, and an open space property management plan. Homeless advocates have already announced their intention to protest
outside City Hall in advance of the meeting, saying that plans to remove the estimated 100 people camped in the PalCo Marsh behind the Bayshore Mall are inhumane and persecutory.
“These ordinances are directed at one specific kind of person in our community,” says Erin Taylor, a member of the informal advocacy group Friends of the Marsh. “Being homeless is not a crime, nor should it be.”
Friends of the Marsh say they will hold signs in silent protest at 4 p.m. as city councilmembers enter the hall, and that they are being joined by other local social justice groups such as Food Not Bombs and True North
The Open Space Property Management Plan cites the need for the “protection of public resources on city owned property along the waterfront.” It establishes a management plan to be implemented as policy on the “management of open space, trails and right of way areas” and describes the planning challenges to the development of the Eureka Waterfront Trail, intended to extend 6.3 miles along the bay. Those challenges are exclusively related to homeless encampments, and include sanitation issues, stolen shopping carts and loose dogs. Many of these issues are already covered by existing rules and regulations, but the city is proposing additional policies intended to “manage some of the problems associated with camping.”
The list of policies includes a storage of personal property ordinance which states, in essence, that most types of personal property left in public areas can be removed, often without prior notice. Some items will be catalogued and stored by the Eureka Police Department in 60 gallon tubs. The ordinance includes a subsection which bans the erection of tents in public areas from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“I feel like it’s come to that point where we need to have this conversation,” says Councilmember Kim Bergel, who has been active in the past in talking with marsh campers and trying to connect them with services. “It’s not going to be comfortable and it’s not going to be fun, but the conversation has to begin.”
“There’s a whole community that doesn’t feel safe using that area,” she adds. “We’ve been working with them for a while, trying to figure out exit plans, trying to provide services. I hate to say it but I feel like the city has been really good, really lenient. We knew it was going to ramp up, and now’s the time.”
But how the ordinances – existing and proposed – will be enforced is unclear. Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills has been adamant in the past that homelessness is “not a police problem.” People camping in the marsh area were served an “eviction notice” of sorts on July 15, with information regarding city municipal code 93.02, which prohibits camping in any public or private space, but the wholesale “clean sweep” of campers in the area that some anticipated did not come to pass
. Instead the city began actively cleaning the area once a week, forcing campers to put away their belongings, social service organizations began stepping up their efforts to connect people with housing, and the Eureka Police Department redoubled itsefforts to contact what Mills called the “troublemakers” in the Marsh area: thieves and those prone to violence. It appears that this will be the tone of future law enforcement as well.
“It allows us to have more tools to use to deal with some of the more recalcitrant people who are refusing to help ourselves,” says Mills of the personal property ordinance. Additional rules that would fall upon his staff to enforce include bicycles not being allowed off trail and dogs not allowed off-leash (or off the trail further than 10 feet).
Mills echoed Bergel in saying that the city had been “very patient,” but reiterated that homelessness is not a problem that can be arrested away.
“The role of law enforcement is to continue to try to encourage them to help themselves,” says Mills, adding that his officers will use their discretion when deciding whether or not to contact people under 93.02. “When people aren’t willing to move, we’ll cite them, or take them into physical custody. I want to be careful not to create a false expectation that if we arrest things will change overnight.”
Friends of the Marsh and other advocacy organizations maintain that it is unjust to remove people for camping when there are insufficient amounts of emergency shelter space and low-income housing in the area. The Humboldt County Human Rights Commission has repeatedly petitioned the Board of Supervisors to declare a shelter emergency, with no official response. The city council agenda also includes a plan to raze and rebuild an existing low income housing structure, a total of 106 units. Bergel emphasized that residents currently in the structure will be rehoused and that the renovated structure will be safer and potentially contain more units. A recent report by the Humboldt County Grand Jury stated that there was a lack of affordable housing in Humboldt County and recommended a trust fund be established to create more such housing. In its draft response, due for approval at this city council meeting, the city states that it does not have sufficient money at this time to establish said fund.
Representatives from Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives
also plan to attend and protest, saying the city’s “proposal of evictions and barring people without houses from public and private land is likely a violation of civil and human rights.”
Taylor says Friends of the Marsh has received a vigorous response from other advocacy groups and have achieved a lot of progress just from talking with marsh residents. She says her group understands that the situation as is is untenable and detrimental to the environment (Bergel and others have expressed fears about water quality if rains cause fecal matter to be washed into the bay.) but says the devolution of the conversation into “us and them” is counterproductive.
“Both sides have fear of each other,” she said. “It’s causing people to be dehumanized.”
UPDATE: Following hours of impassioned debate, the Eureka City Council moved last night to table a controversial ordinance regarding the storage of personal belongings on city property. Public comment on the ordinance lasted for hours, stretching the meeting until 11 p.m. Several dozen people also gathered outside City Hall prior to the meeting to protest the proposed ordinance.