Before dawn one foggy, raw morning almost two years ago, I walked down a narrow lane off Second Street to the Eureka Rescue Mission's outdoor area.
I started asking some of the homeless people sitting and lying on benches to take a survey for the Point in Time Count. No one was particularly eager to respond, but I had socks and personal care items to give out, so several agreed to answer the questions. What struck me most was their ages, and how long they'd been on the streets. Date of birth? 1962, 1964, 1963. How long homeless? Eight years. Fourteen years. Six years.
My heart went out to one man in his late 40s. He appreciated my efforts and was grateful for the freebies. He'd been homeless eight years, had no family and lived on $950 a month Supplemental Security Income, which he received because of a mental illness.
He asked me if I knew where he could rent a studio apartment or a private room for $450 a month. "I can't handle a roommate," he said.
I didn't know, but if I were asked that question today, I might mention the legal campground or micro-housing village that I and others hope will be created for homeless people in Eureka.
Discussed for many years, the idea has never gone anywhere. It has a chance now because the 2013-2014 Humboldt County Grand Jury recommended this approach as a solution for homeless veterans. A new grassroots group is backing the idea — although they want the program open to non-veterans — and two influential Eureka leaders told me they support it, at least in concept.
What makes us think it's possible is the fact that it's working in other places, notably Portland and Eugene, Oregon.
I visited Portland's Dignity Village in 2004 and walked away impressed. Not only does it provide safe and sober shelter — ranging from tents and sheds to code-compliant tiny houses — for 60 formerly homeless people, the resident-managed community shows what marginalized people can accomplish if given the chance.
Opportunity Village Eugene, with 35 residents, is similar, although leadership is shared between a resident council and a non-resident board of directors.
Andrew Heben, a co-founder of the Eugene project and author of a book about these types of communities nationwide, will speak Saturday, Nov. 15, at 10:30 a.m. at the Eureka Women's Club.
Heben told me by phone that Opportunity Village Eugene is thriving. "We haven't had a single complaint from neighbors," he said, and recently the village received a two-year lease extension from the Eugene City Council.
Given the frustration and anger at the homeless in Eureka — and the common perception that providing more services enables their lifestyles and draws more of them to town — any proposal for an Opportunity Village Eureka will meet opposition.
As required by law, the board of supervisors will discuss the grand jury's recommendations at some point. There, it will have at least one potential supporter. Supervisor Virginia Bass has been interested in the idea since she was on the Eureka City Council but told me she has many questions about how such a facility would run and who would run it. "It seems like a good idea but when it comes down to the on-the-ground execution and how's it going to work, there are concerns," she said.
I agree: This will not be easy. And I respect the concerns of city leaders who have argued, or will argue, against the idea. City Councilwoman Melinda Ciarabellini has declared her opposition, even after taking a tour of Opportunity Village Eugene earlier this year.
"It was clean [and] the residents appeared to be sober and drug free," Ciarabellini said. "To me it appeared to be a solution for a small population of the homeless."
But Ciarabellini agrees with Focus Strategies, the city's Sacramento-based consulting firm that advises against creating a legal campground or similar facility. They say this would be "managing the impacts of homelessness" rather than tackling the real problem, which is lack of affordable housing.
Ciarabellini and the consultants prefer a "rapid re-housing" method.
"With rapid re-housing, [agencies] try to house people within 30 days, maybe subsidizing their rent for a while," said Ciarabellini. "That's the strategy I support. I do not support legalized campgrounds."
Some of us think an Opportunity Village could co-exist with, and even support, rapid re-housing. Nezzie Wade with Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA) said, "Getting safe, warm and dry allows people to regroup so they can take other steps forward."
The grand jury concluded that something like an Opportunity Village would make it easier for some homeless veterans to get help — those whose PTSD, mental illness, lack of transportation "or other personal problems keep [them] from being admitted to or getting to [existing veterans' programs]." It could also ease the burden on first responders who deal with crimes and medical emergencies among the homeless.
Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills sees potential benefits along these lines, and said he would like to see three types of facilities: "[One] with bed space for some of these folks; then another place for some people to camp until they can get into rapid re-housing. Third would be a place for some people to park their cars temporarily. If we can do that all in one location, that would be ideal."
Mills listed three criteria that such a project should meet: "One, it must not greatly impact the surrounding community. Two, there'll have to be some level of control over the facility. ... And three, there must be the understanding that this is not permanent housing, this is transitional housing until we can rapidly re-house people."
The transitional angle is important — and a major challenge. The fact is that many homeless people who move into a transitional facility end up staying, or wanting to stay, a very long time.
A year ago, when the Oregonian published a feature on Dignity Village, more than half of the residents had stayed at least two years; a third at least five years.
Heben told me that after "deep discussions," the board of Opportunity Village Eugene has "come to realize that while some people will use this place as a transition, others might not necessarily be at a point in life where they're physically or mentally capable of maintaining a full-time job. That is what it takes to get housing unless you're lucky enough to get a Section Eight voucher or other assistance."
Locally, no organization with the capacity to create an Opportunity Village has proposed it, and I'm not aware of any that are considering it.
In Portland, homeless residents created a nonprofit group to manage Dignity Village. In Eugene, it was a joint effort of the housed and houseless.
The lack of a local sponsor has killed this notion every time it has been proposed in meetings about homelessness. Some people get excited about it, but no individual or organization steps forward to take it on, according to people who've attended those meetings
By the time I finished that volunteer shift a couple years ago, I had interviewed nine or 10 people. In total, the 2013 Point in Time Count surveyed 1,054 homeless people. Counting family members, the official total was 1,579, about two-thirds of whom were in or near Eureka.
Most of them were spending their nights indoors — at a shelter, motel, friend's house or other abode. But 458 people were camping or sleeping in a vehicle.
There were — and are — more than that, including some who couldn't be found and others who refused to participate. (I was turned down by about a half-dozen people.)
So I'm guessing that there were actually 600 or 700 people sleeping outdoors in the county at that time, which would translate into 400 to 500 in the Eureka area. People I talked to for this piece estimated that there are now 300 to 500 people living outdoors in or near Eureka today.
Some choose that lifestyle, preferring to spend their SSI or general relief checks on drugs and alcohol rather than rent.
But many, like the 40-year-old man I talked to, simply can't find housing.
These include families with children, single people with disabilities and mental illnesses, victims of domestic violence, foster kids who aged out of the social service system — all sleeping illegally in parked cars or trying to stay dry in dank gulches and marshy woodlands.
Surely a community with a heart as big as Humboldt's can draw on the lessons learned in Portland, Eugene and elsewhere to create a place where a few dozen of these folks — those willing to abide by rules and participate in a resident-managed community — can find a home.
Jim Hight is a freelance writer who lives in Eureka. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org