On the evening of Tuesday, Mar. 1, the Eureka City Council unanimously approved a resolution to support the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction’s needle supply program, opted to send the Eureka Police Department’s little-used mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle back to the federal government and, after a smatter of discussion and dissent, approve changes to the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance. And after a report by Police Chief Andy Mills, the chief’s advisory board, a presentation by Next Generation Eureka and some paper shuffling and thanks by city councilmembers, Mayor Frank Jager closed the meeting with an unexpected announcement: City councilmembers were directed to revisit the temporary sanctuary camp issue.
“We’re not adjourned yet,” he said. “I’ve been concerned about this for some time, it’s something I didn’t think I’d be in favor of, but looking into the future I’ve seen some serious problems for the city, so I want to come forward.”
Jager added that, aside from providing land, Dumpsters and Porta-potties, the city would not have a fiscal commitment to the project. His concern, he said, came from the “over 100 people currently camped on public land,” referring to the existing non-sanctioned homeless camp behind the Bayshore Mall, which may be displaced once work begins on the waterfront trail this spring. City councilmembers were asked to offer direction to city staff on how to proceed, and return to the city council no later the first part of April with a lease agreement for a non-profit run location.
“And with that, we are adjourned,” he closed, banging his gavel.
The prospect of a temporary sanctioned camp for those currently living rough in the city’s greenbelts has been a bugaboo in the debate over homelessness for almost a year, since Mills and City Manager Greg Sparks brought the item to the council on Apr. 21, 2015. At the time, those living behind the mall were told that they had a month to leave. That deadline was subsequently changed, and changed again, as the city council debated about adopting a spectrum of different policies to address the issue, from a property storage plan that would prohibit the presence of certain items on city land, to “shrinking the footprint” of the camps by condensing campers into a smaller area, to declaring a shelter crisis so that alternative city properties could be utilized. Each item generated hours of public comment and exposed rifts between councilmembers and staff.
In its recent report to the city council and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, consultant group Focus Strategies discouraged the city from pursuing any measures besides “Housing First,” saying it would draw money and energy away from what it considers to be a proven and effective way forward. The city and county paid Focus Strategies $80,000 to develop a plan for the close to 1,000 people suffering housing insecurity in Eureka. A temporary, sanctioned camp was not among its recommendations, lending support to those who would believe it is a poor idea.
“I’ve always been against sanctioned camps,” said councilmember Kim Bergel in a phone call. “People I’ve talked to in person have many concerns. If it was doomed to fail before, how is this going to be any different? I worry about the exit plan.”
Bergel added she has received many comments on her Facebook page supporting a sanctioned camp, but she worries about how rules will be enforced in the camp, and whether or not a sanctioned camp will disrupt the process of getting those seeking housing to the necessary resources.
Jager did not return numerous calls from the Journal, but his remarks at the close of the meeting seemed to anticipate criticism.
“I’m sure all of us hope that the Housing First approach will reduce houselessness,” he said, but added the possible diaspora of those currently camped on city land to surrounding neighborhoods and businesses represents an “impending crisis.” It should be noted that, under Eureka's governmental structure, the mayor doesn't have a vote on the council and can't implement policy. Whether the city ultimately moves forward with a sanctioned camp will ultimately fall to a vote of its five-member city council.
A local non-profit, Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, has announced they will present their own proposal for a sanctuary camp on Monday, Mar. 7 at 2 p.m. at the St. Vincent DePaul free meal site, 35 West Third Street, Eureka.