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The Jury's In 

We combed through the civil grand jury reports so you don't have to

By their very nature, Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury reports generally make for pretty dry reading. Not only are they products of deep-dive investigations into the inner workings of the bureaucracies of government, but they are also the work product of 19 citizens who must be in agreement not just about what an investigation found but how that information should be presented, all with the knowledge that said report will be a historical document that could be referenced generations into the future.

Just reading through some of the titles of past reports can cause eyelids to droop and attention to wander: "Humboldt County Roads" (2013-2014), "Vaccination — Implementation of Senate Bill 277 in Humboldt County" (2015-2016), "Responding in Time to Help our at Risk Children" (2016-2017) and "Humboldt Bay Trail — Maintenance and Public Safety" (2017-2018). And while the Grand Jury has unquestionably produced some important work in recent years, it's also released some yawn-worthy reports that did little to enhance the public's understanding of an issue, even if someone managed to read through to the end.

This year's reports, however, appear different. Not only are the selected topics seemingly meatier and more ambitious than those of years' past, they come penned with pithy titles and literary flair. Consider this line from "Les Misérables: The Criminalization of the Homeless in the City of Eureka" suggesting the city and county form a task force to find a warehouse or some kind of suitable location for a makeshift shelter:

"Apparently such a working group did meet for a time in an attempt to form common strategies and common solutions but has recently been abandoned because, as we were told, 'It ran out of gas.' The Grand Jury believes plenty of creative fuel exists to restart that engine."

The same report notes that Eureka has taken "a kind of carrot and stick approach" to managing the local homeless population "but with an emphasis on the stick."

Still, the five reports released last month to the media by Civil Grand Jury Foreperson Joseph Kravitz total more than 100 pages of background, findings and recommendations. As the new 2019-2020 Grand Jury gets to work on a fresh batch of investigations and reports, the Journal pored through the five reports — each of which is worth a read in its entirety — and summarized their findings and recommendations below. Numerous agencies are required to respond to the Grand Jury's reports but most hadn't by the time the Journal went to press. We'll report on the responses once they are filed.

click to enlarge The Grand Jury points out that pursuing a Housing First strategy when there's not enough housing leaves people to suffer on the streets. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • The Grand Jury points out that pursuing a Housing First strategy when there's not enough housing leaves people to suffer on the streets.

'Like, Home? There's No Place ...'

Background: Back in 2016, the city of Eureka and the county of Humboldt both pledged to follow the recommendation of a paid consultant, Focus Strategies, to implement a Housing First approach to housing the homeless. The renowned strategy first implemented in Utah to resounding success and since replicated elsewhere holds that the most cost-effective way to get people off the streets is to put them into permanent housing without barriers and then provide a bevy of "wrap around" services designed to keep them housed. That means there are no front-end requirements of sobriety or mental health treatment, the idea being that the stability and security of housing makes delivery of those services easier and more successful.

But in Humboldt County, the Grand Jury reports, there simply isn't enough housing to get everyone off the street, regardless of barriers.

"At the rate affordable housing is currently being created, it will be many years until we have enough," the report states. "Until then, our current and future unsheltered homeless will need somewhere legal to stay, both day and night."

The problem, as noted in the report, is that Focus Strategies — and most Housing First models generally — advises against short-term solutions, like sanctioned camps and sanctuary parking programs, feeling they ultimately divert energy and resources away from the ultimate goal, which is creating and moving people into affordable housing.

Making clear that Humboldt County is in the midst of a growing homeless crisis and noting that Humboldt County has one of the highest chronic homeless rates in the country, the Grand Jury report ponders the best path forward.

Key Findings:

1) The number of homeless people in Humboldt County "far exceeds" the number of available permanent affordable housing units and new units are not being built fast enough to meet the growing need.

2) The number of homeless people in Humboldt County exceeds current shelter capacity. Existing shelters are also underutilized, the report states, due to restrictions that "prevent use by significant segments of the homeless population." (The report also clearly notes that, when it comes to the Eureka Rescue Mission, some of these "restrictions" are simply the product of misinformation, noting that contrary to popular belief, the Mission does not require folks staying there to attend religious services and does allow intoxicated people to stay, so long as they aren't disruptive.) Further, the report found there aren't enough day centers — safe places where the homeless can go during the day and store belongings.

3) The report found Eureka and Humboldt County have failed to hold regular meetings of their "inter-government Leadership Group," resulting in "a lack of coordination between them regarding homelessness."

4) The Housing Trust Fund and Homelessness Solutions Committee created by the county have been hamstrung by the "dual objectives" of addressing the housing shortage and addressing the immediate needs of the homeless. Further, the report found the fund and committee currently lack funding and have no ongoing funding source to accomplish their goals.

Key Recommendations:

1) That the county work with existing shelters to reduce barriers, which could include helping to fund expansions, the inclusion of dog kennels (which comes with added insurance costs), creating a space for couples to stay together and the creation of storage space for personal belongings.

2) That the county update its resolution creating the Housing Trust Fund and the Homelessness Solutions Committee to make clear it is responsible for advancing affordable housing projects and steps to address immediate shelter needs.

3) That the county and city resume regular leadership meetings and work together to identify a location for a homeless day center and implement a supervised safe parking program.

4) That the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors direct the Department of Health and Human Services to allocate a portion of its flexible funds for homeless solutions to the Housing Trust Fund to increase shelter capacity and provide for "populations not presently being served."

5) That the county and city develop plans to provide financial incentives for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, commonly called mother-in-law units, noting that other counties have waived permit fees, provided free, permit-ready plans and even provided loans to property owners who pledged to charge affordable rents.

click to enlarge The Grand Jury found that the county is behind schedule in making scores of Americans with Disability Act improvements mandated under a consent decree with the federal government, including the installation of more than 1,500 sidewalk curb ramps. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN WEBSTER
  • Photo by Jonathan Webster
  • The Grand Jury found that the county is behind schedule in making scores of Americans with Disability Act improvements mandated under a consent decree with the federal government, including the installation of more than 1,500 sidewalk curb ramps.

'Here We Go Again'

Background: In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that 51 facilities owned or leased by the county of Humboldt were not in compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county then entered into a settlement agreement, pledging that within three years it would bring its facilities, programs and services into compliance with the law, which was aimed at providing equal access for individuals with disabilities. When the county failed to make good on its promise, the DOJ filed a complaint in federal court, which led to a consent decree in 2016 wherein the county pledged to remediate more than 50 barriers for people with disabilities under a number of deadlines. A press release announcing the consent decree at the time noted that the federal government had entered into more than 220 settelment agreements with municipalities across the country and "Humboldt County is one of the rare public entities that did not take remedial actions required" to come into compliance with the ADA.

But the Grand Jury found that the county has not made much progress, with some of those deadlines passed and others looming. Additionally, the Grand Jury found that county staff has repeatedly "failed to mention the required dates that were missed and the future dates that are likely to be missed" when addressing the Board of Supervisors in open session, leaving elected officials and the public in the dark. Most recently, in November, county staff reported to the board that 15 facilities had been verified to be in compliance and another five had been determined not to require modifications. According to the Grand Jury, the report "failed to mention 38 facilities had yet to be remediated and the deadline had passed for 23 of those."

According to the Grand Jury report, nearly 13 percent of Humboldt County residents — or 17,494 people — are living with disabilities. The biggest issue standing between the county and compliance with federal law is curb ramps, or those tapered portions of a sidewalk that allow wheelchairs, baby strollers and pedestrians with walkers or canes to get on or off a sidewalk.

And, the Grand Jury found, the county was still issuing requests for proposals for some facilities in May, a month before the work was required to be completed under the consent decree. It is similarly still issuing requests for proposals to remediate more than 1,500 curb ramps by its Sept. 7 deadline. The report also notes that construction costs have risen steadily over the past three years, meaning the county will ultimately pay a "significantly higher" cost than the $25 million initially projected for the work.

Key Findings:

1) Humboldt County is again not on course to meet its contractual obligations with the federal government and make its public facilities — including buildings and sidewalks — accessible to people with disabilities.

2) The fact that the county was behind on contractual deadlines with the DOJ "was never provided by the County Administrative Office staff in a transparent and timely manner in any open Board of Supervisors meeting."

Key Recommendations:

1) That the Board of Supervisors direct county staff to present "transparent and complete quarterly status reports" on all ADA projects in open meetings of the board, and that the reports be prepared by a certified project management professional. Further, the Grand Jury recommends that the board direct staff to conduct a full review of the county's ADA compliance.

click to enlarge Due to five actions taken far from Humboldt County, the local jail has become a primary provider of mental health services, according to the Grand Jury. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN WEBSTER
  • Photo by Jonathan Webster
  • Due to five actions taken far from Humboldt County, the local jail has become a primary provider of mental health services, according to the Grand Jury.

'The Last Resort'

Background: The population of the Humboldt County jail is changing, making it one of the largest providers of mental health services in the county. The Grand Jury pointed to five specific actions as causing the current dynamic: Gov. Ronald Reagan's signing the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which shuttered many state mental institutions; a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown V. Plata that ordered California to decrease its state prison population; and two ballot propositions and Assembly Bill 109 that combined to realign the state's prison population, putting many felons back in local custody.

"Our in-depth study found the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) mental health staff working in the jail is not able to provide an adequate standard of care due to the number of inmates staff is expected to treat in a facility that is not equipped for mental health services, and with inadequate staffing and funding," the report states.

Law enforcement and DHHS staff interviewed by the Grand Jury estimated that between 25 and 90 percent of the jail's current population have some type of mental illness. Further, the report found that the state's realignment laws have brought elements of "prison culture" — including racial self-segregation and gang activity — to the jail as inmates serve longer sentences locally. This has led to a sharp increase in assaults, the report notes. In 2009, the jail reported 84 fights, including assaults on officers, assaults on inmates and instances of "mutual combat." In 2017, that number had spiked to 204. The biggest risk, it appears, has been to correctional staff, who were assaulted an average of 35 times a year between 2015 and 2017, compared to just five times annually over the prior six years.

While it's unclear how much of the increased violence is due to mental health issues among inmates and how much is simply due to a more violent post-realignment population, the report found that mental health services are lacking. Difficulties recruiting and retaining mental health staff have meant that not all inmates with mental illnesses are receiving individualized treatment plans or the daily attention needed. Further, the report found that while inmates released from the facility during regular business hours are given a two-week's supply of medication and a "warm hand-off" to continuing services, those released on weekends or off hours don't get that service.

"If inmates are released outside those business hours, they are instructed to report the next business day," the report states. "Bus tickets and schedules are handed to those who request them. Unfortunately, many who have been released just disappear."

Meanwhile, the report states that the need for mental health services in the jail appears to be growing, noting that the amount spent by the county on psychotropic drugs in the jail rose more than 350 percent from the first half of 2018 to the second.

The report notes a number of other challenges facing the jail and the delivery of mental health services locally, including how local law enforcement, jail staff and Sempervirens handle involuntary commitments, known as 5150s, when someone is believed to pose a danger to themselves or others. Specifically, the report notes there is a "difficulty recognizing the difference between drug-induced behavior and a true mental health episode," which poses challenges determining whether someone should go to Sempervirens, the jail or a local hospital.

Key Findings:

1) There is a lack of mental health providers locally willing to work for DHHS and the department's "inability ... to recruit and retain permanent clinical staff" is hindering the jail's ability to care for inmates.

2) There is a lack of written policies and procedures concerning the care of mentally ill inmates at the jail and "few long-term mental health plans in place for dealing with inmates serving extended sentences."

3) Plans for providing inmates ongoing care after their release are "incomplete."

Key Recommendations:

1) That DHHS "develop a more comprehensive, modern, aggressive and nationwide recruitment and hiring plan for permanent psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and clinicians who focus on the mentally ill population" in the jail.

2) That DHHS seek out funding to provide a physical space for the delivery of mental health services, including specialized clinics and programs, within the jail.

3) That DHHS ensure written policies and procedures regarding the care of mentally ill inmates be developed and distributed to appropriate staff. Further, the Grand Jury recommends that DHHS make the delivery of mental health services in the jail "a higher priority."

4) That the county implement a new California Department of State Hospitals Diversion Program aimed at getting the mentally ill out of jail and into hospitals.

5) That DHHS provide better training to law enforcement to differentiate between mental illness and drug-induced issues and that all law enforcement agencies in the county review and study "5150 protocols."

click to enlarge The Grand Jury identified 10 ordinances in Eureka that may serve to criminalize the state of homelessness, resulting in citations and fines that pose additional barriers for people looking to get off the streets. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • The Grand Jury identified 10 ordinances in Eureka that may serve to criminalize the state of homelessness, resulting in citations and fines that pose additional barriers for people looking to get off the streets.

'Les Misérables: The Criminalization of the Homeless in the City of Eureka'

Background: Eureka is the epicenter of Humboldt County's homeless crisis and the city's approach to dealing with the issue — in addition to pledging to pursue a Housing First approach in 2016 — has been to pass or modify 10 different ordinances aimed at mitigating impacts. The ordinances, which touch on everything from camping to the storage of personal belongings in public, are largely enforced by the police department.

"Beyond providing few positive results, the Grand Jury's investigation found the use of law enforcement as a primary tool in dealing with homelessness is counterproductive," the report states. "Evacuating encampments simply dispersed problems from a contained location to a wider area of the city. Our investigation uncovered ample evidence that criminalizing the human activities of the unhoused is far more costly than providing transitional and permanent housing, and support services. Most importantly, creating more debt through fines and criminal records through arrests erects steeper barriers for the homeless in finding work and qualifying for housing in an ever tightening rental market."

The report notes that both the homeless population and the number of citations issued for homeless-related offenses have risen in recent years, indicating the approach has not helped curb undesired behaviors or decrease the number of people living unsheltered in the city. Further, the city has faced a couple of costly legal challenges to its ordinances and may face more in the future, the Grand Jury found. Further, with data showing that more than half of Eureka's homeless population has a diagnosed mental illness and more than 70 percent reporting drug and/or alcohol problems, the report notes that "criminalizing the homeless population" imposes pain.

Key Findings:

1) Citations and arrests of homeless people have not served to reduce the number of un-housed people in the city but make it more difficult for the homeless to find work and qualify for housing.

2) The financial cost of criminalization "far exceeds" the cost of providing services that transition people into housing.

3) "Criminalizing behavior that is largely part of being human increases the misery of those being targeted."

4) "Continuing to cite and arrest homeless individuals participating in the activities of daily living will not improve the available housing inventory."

Key Recommendations:

1) That the city form a committee that includes police and advocacy groups to review the 10 city ordinances and identify those "for which the homeless have no options to avoid violating" and amend or repeal them accordingly.

2) That the city suspend enforcement of said ordinances until the review is complete and come up with a plan that allows homeless individuals to perform community services in exchange for waiving the fees associated with citations.

3) That the city provide storage spaces and public restrooms at strategic locations throughout the city.

4) That the city work to create more short-term shelter and transitional housing options, while also increasing the development of affordable housing.

click to enlarge Before taking office, Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez alleged understaffing was hampering the office's ability to make sure public funds are being spent appropriately. The Grand Jury agrees. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Before taking office, Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez alleged understaffing was hampering the office's ability to make sure public funds are being spent appropriately. The Grand Jury agrees.

'The Mis-Fortunes of Humboldt County'

Background: During a meeting of the Board of Supervisors in 2017, then Assistant Auditor Karen Paz Dominguez stepped to the podium during public comment and dropped a bombshell, alleging that the auditor-controller's office was steeped in dysfunction and understaffed, leaving the county susceptible to fraud and theft. In response, the board soon hired three outside firms to conduct management and accounting reviews — as well as an audit — of the office.

None of the reviews turned up any evidence of fraud or the misuse of county funds, according to county spokesperson Sean Quincey. Nonetheless, the Grand Jury decided to comb through the three firms' reports to see if the county had taken their findings seriously and taken corrective action.

Key Findings:

1) The Auditor-Controller's Office is understaffed and suffers from a lack of sufficient training.

2) The county does not adequately track funding sources and uses for "numerous programs and departments" and that not all funds are tracked and used properly.

3) That the Auditor-Controller's Office has "encountered a lack of cooperation" from other county staff in its "efforts to carry out its legal responsibilities."

4) "There is a high risk of fraud in a number of county departments due to their poor cash handling policies and procedures, improper accounting and lack of accountability."

Key Recommendations:

1) That the Board of Supervisors make sure the Auditor-Controller's Office is fully funded and staffed, and that it purchase new accounting software for the office.

2) That the Auditor-Controller's Office develop and maintain a metric for gauging compliance for other departments to implement generally accepted accounting principles.

3) That the Board of Supervisors review its decision to transfer payroll responsibilities from the Auditor-Controller's Office to the Human Resources Department and that the Auditor-Controller's Office conduct an audit of the Human Resources Payroll Office.

4) That the county develop cash handling procedures and have the County Administrative Office conduct a "complete reconciliation" of all trust funds across all departments in the county.

5) That the county ensure that future software purchases include contracts for training.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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