Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Council Moves forward with Container Community for the Homeless

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 10:19 AM

click to enlarge Shipping containers sit in the lot at the corner of Third and Commercial Streets, with renovations having already begun. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • Shipping containers sit in the lot at the corner of Third and Commercial Streets, with renovations having already begun.
After an outpouring of critical public comment, the Eureka City Council opted last night to move forward with a proposal to create a temporary homeless living arrangement in a vacant lot on the corner of Third and Commercial streets.

In a 4-1 vote, with Councilmember Linda Ciarabellini dissenting, the council amended its shelter crisis declaration to allow the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights and Betty Chinn to convert Connex shipping containers into temporary living quarters to house about 40 soon-to-be-displaced homeless people who are currently residing in the Palco Marsh. The plan, which came together in the last few weeks, calls for HumCPR to oversee the funding and construction of the community, with Chinn and staff from the Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center providing oversight and case management. The proposal calls for the container community to remain at the site for six months.

During more than an hour of public comment, the council heard from a host of business and property owners in the neighborhood, virtually all of whom spoke against the proposed container project. They expressed concern that the project — the backers of which have stated will welcome drug addicts, the mentally ill and sex offenders with nowhere else to go — would add to a criminal element in the neighborhood. They complained of trash and feces in the streets and alleys, with many saying they currently don’t feel safe in the area.

Some of the comments were pointed and searing. The owner of Living Styles Furniture threatened to move the store if the project moves forward, and a woman representing a gymnastics studio neighboring the property said housing sex offenders nearby could doom the business. Many blasted the city and project proponents for not doing more outreach and noticing, and lamented learning about the project through the news media.

A few commenters voiced support for the project and others simply urged the council to slow down and thoroughly vet what was being proposed.

But when the matter came back to the council, Councilmember Marian Brady made clear there is no time for more discussion. She referenced the city’s May 2 eviction date for marsh residents, saying the city risks losing its insurance coverage if it doesn’t follow through with a project to tear down the large concrete structures in the marsh that have become a massive liability concern.

And while she hears business owners' concerns, Brady said she was unswayed by the not-in-my-backyard argument. “Everywhere in Eureka is somebody’s neighbor, so everywhere is going to have 25 to 30 people saying, ‘I don’t want it here,’” she said, adding that the proposed location sits across the street from Chinn’s public shower facility, providing residents with access to a service that can help restore some of their dignity.

Further, Brady said the impacts people were complaining about are caused by the people who frequent St. Vincent de Paul’s free dining facility on Third Street. She blamed the facility for a lack of site control, and said she has faith in Chinn to run a well-managed community.

Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said she knows the area well, as her band regularly practices nearby, and she's aware of the conditions there. She said she believes a well-run community would help the area. “In my mind, this proposal would give people somewhere to be, somewhere to go, somewhere to bathe, somewhere to get housing assistance, somewhere to stay warm and dry, at least temporarily,” she said.

Councilmember Kim Bergel echoed those sentiments, urging those in attendance to remember this community will be for up to 40 people who are engaging in support services and case management, and are following a program administered by Chinn.

Ciarabellini began her comments by praising Chinn, saying that if anybody can pull this off it would be her. But Ciarabellini said she shared some of the neighbors’ concerns. She said there are beds open at the Eureka Rescue Mission and more could be available at St. Vincent de Paul. The reality, she said, is that many of the people still out in the marsh are there because they don’t want to follow rules, and she doubted they will come into compliance.

Saying she believes in Housing First, Ciarabellini said she’d like to see time and resources spent to that end, pointing to the $50,000 in funding the council recently approved to help Chinn open a shelter to house homeless families.

And Ciarabellini said she also has an issue with the 11th-hour nature of this project, saying she still has a bunch of unanswered questions and hasn’t really been able to vet a full proposal. Because the item before the council last night called for it to approve the shelter crisis amendment and direct staff to work out the necessary agreements to move the proposal forward, Ciarabellini said she was uncomfortable.

“I want to see the safety plan, the security plan, the budget — what we’d see if someone went through the RFP,” she said, referring to the city’s recent request for proposals to help people transition out of the marsh, which asked respondents to include proof of insurance, funding plans, site control plans and more.

With the council’s approval in hand, the project still needs to clear a few hurdles, most notably getting a funding allocation of $130,000 from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and an emergency waiver from the California Coastal Commission so it can move forward without a coastal development permit. It also remains unclear if a group of neighborhood business and property owners represented by local attorney Andrew Stunich will follow through with threats of a lawsuit if the council moved the project forward.

For more on the proposal and its path forward, see past Journal coverage here and pick up this week’s print edition.
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