Eureka has partnered police with advocates to tackle homelessness, but some say crisis is getting worse – Times-Standard



More than a year since COVID-19 deeply affected service providers in Eureka, homelessness remains the city’s No.1 problem, placing city staff and police alongside advocates and advocates. non-profit organizations.

The city revamped its approach to dealing with homelessness in the years following Martin v. Boise, a 2018 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court cited the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment as the basis for its ruling that cities cannot ban camping if they don’t have enough accommodation beds for the homeless. The following year, Eureka received scathing criticism from the Humboldt County Civilian Grand Jury, which accused the city of criminalizing the homeless, coordinating ineffectively with Humboldt County, and not providing enough support. services.

Eureka began by assigning officers from the Eureka Police Department to a team working in tandem with behavioral health specialists, with a municipal department dedicated to outreach and reorientation. The model puts the police at the center, directing homeless people to services and providers.

Police say it has been effective, but homeless advocates are skeptical of focusing law enforcement efforts. There is no authorized campground, and apart from a small village of small houses given, the emphasis is on local shelters.

Rescue Mission Executive Director Bryan Hall shows off some of the 65 accommodation beds Old Town Eureka provides for homeless people. (Shaun Walker – The Times-Standard File)

Bryan Hall, executive director of the Eureka Rescue Mission, said in December that he had not seen an increase in Eureka’s homeless population since the start of the pandemic. He said he sees “a terrible influx of people who could find themselves homeless and living in their cars, who were at one point a business owner, simply because they were mandated to shut down or limit so much. that they cannot survive. “

Betty Chinn, a famous homeless advocate, said in December that more than 1,470 homeless people were counted in Humboldt County in the latest count.

Chinn, 74 and known for her work connecting homeless Humboldt County residents with shelter and resources, said in early June that homelessness had likely increased.

“The city is like a ghost town,” she says. “You can’t run, you can’t hide, and you can’t protect anything.”

So “they are afraid and they become violent”.

Chinn works seven days a week and said she can ask local authorities to respond if she alerts them to excess litter or a need for masks. She opened a campsite in October for 97 people.

“Not even a single day that I skip (volunteering),” she said. “I can’t do this because the people there are so scared already.”

She said she had been harassed and threatened with prosecution because some residents did not appreciate her efforts and that she feared for the safety of others.

“I believe in what I do. Homeless people are not going anywhere.

Attorney Nezzie Wade of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives said on June 1 that the city has been dealing with around 200 people on the city streets every day since 2016. In that year, people were displaced from an encampment. with “progressive application tactics”.

It was at this point that city staff created the system that “centered the police in their actions to get people into housing.”

“You kind of have to work with the police to line up for accommodation,” Wade said, leading to some problems if people have trust issues with the police and find it difficult to work with them.

Wade recently said that another anti-camping ordinance in the city had been passed, with different rules on owning personal property or dogs, using public restrooms and many other public visibility issues.

Wade and other advocates provide a weekly mobile shower service with hygiene, food, clothing, showers, and haircuts. They usually give up to 22 showers before they run out of water and work with the local needle exchange program.

There have been a few big camp sweeps lately, but technically there are still shelter beds available by contract with the city, Wade said. For months, shelters have been closed due to COVID-19, but now people can enter with limited capacity.

Police response

Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said homelessness remains the No.1 problem in Eureka as the epicenter of resources such as health and mental care, transportation and tourism. He called the new strategy “much less emphasis on application … more on collaboration with stakeholders and data-driven awareness.”

The city’s co-sponsor program led by Sgt. Leonard LaFrance, in partnership with county mental health officers and specialists, is only half the equation, Watson said. The separate Uplift Eureka program uses a municipal coordinator and two outreach workers to facilitate a pilot diversion program to avoid placing the homeless in the criminal justice system.

A person’s case will be selected to avoid “burying the person in debts they cannot pay” and instead, they will be referred to vocational or vocational training, or a community project.

“When they successfully participate, their municipal violation citation goes away,” Watson said.

He said the goal was not to send police in every incident, with the key philosophy that “responsibility must be combined with compassion”.

“There is a need to maintain order, public safety and good health… But do it in a way that includes homelessness. Law enforcement cannot be the first and only tool at our fingertips that we are looking for.

And while local business owners express frustration with the “quality of life issues and crime they associate with homelessness,” he said, his team must also follow the standards set by the Martin v. Wooded.

“The advocates really believe there should be no camping apps,” Watson said. And he thinks that “self-government has not worked.

“It has to be a well-run situation… not so high that you exclude a large part of the population, but you have to have rules and order. “

LaFrance said the trauma-informed model needs to be part of people’s engagement because more than 30% of Humboldt County residents have had at least four adverse childhood experiences.

“For some people, Housing First absolutely works,” he said. “But for the people we see on the streets, it won’t work unless you have transitional housing and case managers.

“I always tell people that if you only have one responsibility you grind people into the ground and they can’t get out of it. If you only have compassion, you have chaos.

The increase in mental health crises has worsened over the past five months, he said. This contributed to a 15% drop in proactive response as mental crisis calls take time. LaFrance said he knows people don’t like police dealing with mental health crises, but they are still involved even when social workers first go in a crisis.

LaFrance said he could officially add mental health professionals to the department’s outreach team.

“Being connected to people and knowing them helps keep people from getting worse. It’s really about relationships and how you build compliance.

Watson added that the department had a report on its transparency portal containing the city’s response to the civil grand jury report, which it said used old data.

Betty Kwan Chinn is pictured in front of Betty’s Blue Angel vehicle. Betty’s Blue Angel Outreach provides support to people who are generally beyond any social safety net. (Contributed)

Look ahead

Wade of the AHHA said she remains skeptical of the city’s approach.

“When we start to open things up again, I think it’s going to be really interesting,” she said.

“All the people add up and end up homeless because they couldn’t find housing. “

Wade said advocates continued to call on city and county staff and the public health department to allow people to stay put.

“We don’t want to concentrate the police in the middle,” she said. “We want to have a good relationship with the police if necessary, but not for the police to control everything.”

She said advocates hope funding will finally be available for alternative forms of housing, like tiny houses or secure parking, given the severe lack of residences. But, “the city is not in favor of any kind of camp.”

“People are already pushed to the margins. They are as far as they can go.

Perhaps because of the pressure from COVID-19 on the current homelessness crisis, “We have learned a lesson around the world,” Chinn said. “Rich and poor alike, it affects everyone.

“This is the first time I have seen the unit here,” she added. “(We) are getting some great ideas to improve it… now.”

Isabella Vanderheiden contributed to this report.


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