Terrie Smith and Steve Tyson have moved seven times in the last three months: down the abandoned Northwestern Pacific railroad line to unincorporated territory, across the tracks and then back north into Eureka city limits, towing their dogs, bikes and tent with them. They are two of the estimated 730 people living homeless in Eureka, and they have just been handed another eviction notice.
On July 15, the city of Eureka sent out a press release announcing that the city "will be enforcing the 'No Camping' ordinance," or municipal code 93.2, which states "no person shall camp in any public or private space or public or private street, except in areas specifically designated for such use." On the same day as the press release, police officers visited the marsh behind the Bayshore Mall, handing out red flyers with the words "Notice to Vacate" at the top. Residents' failure to vacate and remove personal property by July 25 would result in prosecution. This notice comes on the heels of an announcement that the city had scrapped plans to create a sanctuary camp while rapidly rehousing individuals.
City Manager Greg Sparks said that a recent lawsuit in which a homeless advocate tripped and sustained injuries in the area, as well as concerns from environmental groups, has pressured the city to take more decisive action.
"We continue to get many complaints from residents about encampments," said Sparks. "Quite frankly, we have public property that much of the public does not feel comfortable going into."
But Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills said that his officers will not be "sweeping through" the marsh and arresting everyone remaining once the 10-day warning period is up, although they will begin citing residents for camping illegally, littering and leaving human waste. Enough such citations could result in jail time. Officers will be advised to "use their discretion." "We've tried very hard to be compassionate ... but at the same time we're clearly hearing from the community that this is so problematic that something must be done," said Mills.
Tyson said he recently spent six days in jail for unpaid citations. He is among many living in the marsh who have been identified, photographed and documented by police. Mills said this procedure is to keep track of who has been warned. Both Mills and the city said that available housing resources in Eureka are underutilized. The city's press release used the Eureka Rescue Mission, which operated at half capacity for many days in June, as an example.
Tyson and Smith said they would prefer the relative freedom of camping in the marsh to staying at the Rescue Mission, where the engaged couple would be housed separately. The faciity will also not take in the couple's dogs. Smith is considering rescheduling a major surgery because she's unsure that she will have a stable place to recuperate afterward.
A draft report by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition estimated that there are 844 people living unsheltered in Humboldt County. The number may be a gross underestimate: It does not include those in temporary shelters, living in clean and sober housing, all homeless children or those who simply were not polled during the biannual Point in Time count. In 2014, the coalition inventoried the total amount of year-round beds available in emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing for a grand total of 311 beds. Eureka's facilities collectively hold about 236 beds, not enough to shelter even half the town's total homeless population. Of all these facilities, only the Rescue Mission offers same-day, walk-up services to those in need of a roof over their heads.
Nezzie Wade, of the Humboldt Human Rights Commission, said her organization has been petitioning the Board of Supervisors to declare a shelter crisis for more than a year, with no decisive response.
Richard Marks, who sits on the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, initiated the installation of portable toilets at the marsh. He said they were well received and well maintained until recently, when someone overturned them in what he suspects was an act of protest. The toilets and a community dumpster, both of which have been removed, are features that proponents of a "sanctuary camp" would like to see implemented to help those camping live with more dignity and less impact. But experts say that the sanctuary camp plan is not ideal.
Megan Kurteff Schatz of Focus Strategies, the group that helped develop a plan for Eureka's homeless, says a "housing first" strategy is the city's best bet. Under the plan, individuals who have been homeless the longest would be prioriized for permanent supportive housing. Research shows the housed have a much higher success rate with utilizing resources such as substance abuse treatment and counseling. Schatz said that, over time, the cost to the taxpayer for housing and treatment is much smaller than the cost of emergency services for unsheltered individuals.
"There's no magic bullet on this," she said. "I think both the city and county are both very motivated. The only real solution to homelessness is housing."
Neither Schatz nor the Humboldt County Housing Authority could provide us with a comprehensive picture of how much permanent low-income housing is available in Humboldt County, although a recent grand jury report indicated a "critical lack" of affordable housing in our region, recommending the establishment of a housing trust fund. Schatz said her team is currently at work on a housing inventory analysis. Once that is complete, in August or September, they will immediately begin the "roll out" of a housing first plan.
In the meantime, Smith and Tyson are unsure where they will go next. They plan on attending the July 21 city council meeting to express their concerns.
Roger Prior, a Eureka resident who is part of an informal group dubbed Friends of the Marsh, has been visiting the area for three months to serve lunch and advocate for residents. He said the change needed to properly address the issue is philosophical rather than tactical in nature.
"What I think is important is that they be recognized as community members, to be included in our community," he said. "Other people like me who are housed need to include them in our community and help them. There's some lack of humanity in saying you can't camp anywhere when there's nowhere to go."