Eureka has struggled with what to do with the sprawling community of homeless people camped behind the Bayshore Mall for more than a year. With construction due to begin on a waterfront trail this spring, the more than 100 people currently living in the Palco Marsh may soon have to leave. Mayor Frank Jager acknowledged the time-crunch in a surprise speech delivered at the close of the March 1 city council meeting, dropping the mic (well, banging the gavel) after startling the audience with an unanticipated request to the council: Talk to city staff and come back with a proposal for a temporary sanctuary camp in early April.
"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 said. He added that he has confidence that the Housing First strategy endorsed by consultancy group Focus Strategies will work, but this longer-range plan is insufficient to address the immediate need of those currently sleeping rough on city property.
"I don't want to have to go in May and dump all of these people out of the marsh and have them sleeping in the doorways and the alleys and the residential areas," he said, speaking to the concerns of many home and business owners.
Jager made it clear that the city would not be financially responsible for the camp except for potentially leasing land and providing toilets and Dumpsters. Responsibility for operating and maintaining the camp would fall to a nonprofit.
This announcement was a pleasant surprise to Nezzie Wade, president of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives. AHHA has been advocating for a sanctioned camp of some sort for more than a year — either a tent city like Camp Quixote in Washington, or a small house village, like Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon. The Eureka City Council first discussed these options in December of 2014, but no progress on the subject has been made for the past year, as councilmembers and staff have butted heads and batted around ideas about forcibly removing all campers from the marsh, providing services to people in the marsh, shrinking the footprint of those in the marsh, confiscating the property of those in the marsh, and (after declaring a shelter crisis) moving those in the marsh into city-owned buildings.
Of those many approaches, a handful have actually been implemented: The footprint was shrunk (the Eureka Police Department moved campers into a smaller area), resource fairs now occur monthly and — after a very public show of frustration by councilmember Linda Atkins — the city formally declared a shelter crisis, which relaxes some of the regulations around creating emergency shelters.
Meanwhile, Wade and the AHHA board have been drumming up grassroots support for their cause, inviting the public to view a model tiny house village in September and holding monthly meetings to discuss the ongoing issues faced by those in Humboldt with "no legal place to be." AHHA's credo is "safe, warm and dry first," with the philosophy that once a person is sheltered, he or she can go on to thrive in the continuum of care, utilizing resources to address issues such as drug abuse and mental illness.
On March 7, AHHA held a press conference to roll out its proposal for a sanctuary camp. Several Eureka city councilmembers and county supervisors were present.
"We've been on this trail for a very long time," Wade said to the diverse crowd packed into the St. Vincent DePaul dining room on Eureka's West Third Street. The conference included a Powerpoint presentation by Wade, diagrams of model camps and a question and answer period.
Questions ranged from enthusiastic to dubious. Who would be allowed in the camps? (All who are homeless, on a first come, first serve basis.) Will there be residency requirements? (No.) Will dogs be allowed? (Yes.) What about drugs? (Yes, just not within common areas.) And who will be paying for it all?
This last question prompted a stutter in the well-oiled presentation until an AHHA board member chimed in to say the residents would contribute to the utility costs of the camp. (Other models have the residents paying $30 a month to cover sewer and water.) With land, portable toilets and Dumpsters provided by the city, the only remaining costs would be set-up and staff time. But these costs are not static, the size of the camp is not uniform, and the funding for costs unmet by resident contributions is not certain.
For one thing, although a "pilot project" for Eureka's soon-to-be-displaced would be the first order of business, the nonprofit hopes to address a county-wide problem with villages across the region, which means negotiating a variety of jurisdictional hurdles. The ideal size for a camp, according to Wade, is 25 to 30 people, and in order to meet the spectrum of needs present in the homeless community (some may need to be in a drug-free environment, sex offenders could not camp in the same area as families), many different types of camps or villages might be necessary. While Eureka might be able to find one or two parcels exempt from Coastal Zone protection (the area behind Target has been suggested), many other likely locations are privately owned and may not be accessible via public transportation or by people with disabilities, as one man in the audience said his wheelchair-bound wife, currently living in the marsh, needed.
AHHA has received some small grants, but it appears as though it will be fiscally reliant on approval of Measure Z funding, for which it has submitted three applications: one for a safe parking program ($56,000), one for a model sanctuary camp ($55,548) and one for a tiny house village ($63,933). In the budget included with the application, it estimates around $20,000 in one-time costs and $35,000 in fixed costs to operate for one year, with the bulk of operational costs going toward a full-time staff member. Wade said volunteers and residents will cover staffing gaps to ensure the sites are overseen 24/7.
Despite the recent climate change in council chambers, it's unclear whether Wade's seeds are falling on fertile soil. Councilmember Kim Bergel, who attended the press conference, questioned Wade on the camps' lack of an "exit plan." Jager's call clearly delineated the need for any sanctuary camp to be temporary. Wade responded to Bergel's question by saying that the exit plan would be "people-focused," meaning residents would leave when they were ready.
A quasi-permanent sanctuary camp seems unlikely to gain support in either the city or county, as both the city council and board of supervisors have pledged support for the Housing First strategy, which discourages the diversion of resources into temporary solutions. Supervisor Virginia Bass broached the need for a shared philosophy during the March 1 board of supervisors meeting, saying that if the issue of a sanctuary camp were raised that night in the city council meeting, she would stand up and say it risked sacrificing the board of supervisors' support for their mutual Housing First goal. Like many, she was surprised by Jager's reversal, but said that after "digesting" the news she came to peace with the idea, with the understanding the camp would be temporary. The board approved a joint resolution in support of the Housing First strategy without comment on March 8.
"I don't think the sanctuary camp is helpful towards ending the challenges of homelessness," said Bass. "I think it's putting it off. At the same time, I have to respect that the city feels they need to do something, and working together means sometimes you're not going to agree, but as long as you have an understanding you have to move forward."