The local government super-group (from left): Eureka City Council members Natalie Arroyo, Melinda Ciarabellini, Kim Bergel, Linda Atkins and Marian Brady, plus Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell (standing), Eureka Mayor Frank Jager and supervisors Mark Lovelace, Ryan Sundberg, Rex Bohn and Virginia Bass.

It was a crowded dais this afternoon as the five Eureka City Council members, plus Mayor Frank Jager, shared the curved stage in Humboldt County supervisors’ chambers with those five supers for an unwieldy joint meeting that, as far as anyone could recall, was unprecedented. 

The purpose of the meeting was to hear a presentation from Focus Strategies, the consulting firm hired by the two governmental bodies to address our region’s acute homeless problem. And as the agency’s name suggests, its report recommends a focused, unified approach based on the model of “housing first,” which aims to put homeless people into permanent housing as a first step, as opposed to treatment programs, life skills classes, emergency shelters and other measures.

The idea, explained Focus Strategies founder Megan Kurteff Schatz, is to get everyone rowing in the same direction — the county and city governments as well as community stakeholders and the public at large. And evidence across the country has shown that the housing-first model is the most effective way to reduce homelessness.

When it came time for public comment, however, it was clear that people aren’t nearly ready to align their oars in a unified effort. Many expressed gratitude to the Eureka City Council for last week’s declaration of a shelter crisis, and they championed concepts such as emergency shelters and tent-city triage while insisting that a variety of approaches would be more effective than a single, unified one.

Early in the hearing, Kurteff Schatz presented her firm’s Homeless Strategy and Implementation Plan, explaining its four key strategies for addressing homelessness. (See yesterday’s post for more on that.) Eureka’s homeless problem is severe, she said. Most communities in California have a homelessness rate of 0.18 percent, but Eureka’s at last count was 2.7 percent. And their living conditions are brutal.

“I’ve been to some of your encampments,” Kurteff Schatz said. “Homelessness here is as rough as I’ve seen it, and I’ve been doing this a long time.”

Again and again she hammered home the importance of focusing all resources on getting homeless people into housing; anything else — including a county declaration of a shelter crisis — is likely to be wasteful. Emergency shelters are a delicate issue, she said. On the one hand, people die outside, for lots of reasons. “At the same time,” she added, “if your objective as a community is to reduce homelessness then spending a lot of time and a lot of resources to provide more shelter in hopes that the unsheltered population will come inside is likely to be a distraction from the actual solution, which is to provide housing.”

After the presentation she faced questions from the Avengers-like coalition of local government officials. Eureka Councilmember Marian Brady said, “I’ve been hearing we may be attracting people here who perceive us as having all these magical housing solutions for them.” Betty Chinn has managed to house people, and yet we still have so many homeless. Is that because people keep coming here to cash in on our generous services, Brady asked.

Kurteff Schatz was skeptical. “I’ve heard that [theory] in every community I’ve worked in,” she said. However, with the possible exceptions of San Francisco and Los Angeles, “There’s no evidence to suggest that’s true.” People do congregate where food and services are available, but there’s no evidence that they move to a community for their homeless services.

Councilmember Linda Atkins asked about one Focus Strategies suggestion — reaching out to landlords to encourage them to accept homeless people, often with rental assistance provided through government resources. Could the city or county create an indemnity pool? Atkins asked.

“Yes,” Kurteff Schatz said, “and it’s very effective.”

Councilmember Natalie Arroyo asked how best to respond to people who gripe, “I don’t want my money going to drug users,” or the like. Kurteff Schatz suggested pointing to the larger goal — ending homelessness — as well as this fact. Compared to the costs of people living on the street, “Most cost studies have shown that you either spend the same or less by housing people.”

The Focus Strategies plan calls for the city and county to commit to housing at least 30 people within the first 60 days of implementing this approach, and while neither body committed to such an action today, representatives sounded supportive of the idea.

A long line of public commenters offered a variety of perspectives, very few of which aligned with Focus Strategies’, well, focused strategy. Local hero Betty Chinn spoke first, saying that personal connections with clients are very important, as is case management. She mentioned her own plans to open a new shelter, which she hopes will house 14 families.

Joel McDonough, the founder and former executive director of the Humboldt Recovery Center, said he personally and professionally disagrees with the Focus Strategies approach before noting a personal history that includes work in a Haight-Ashbury clinic, torture in a Turkish prison and more than 300 arrests for being drunk in public. 

John Shelter, head of the group New Directions, which has been working with the people camped at the Palco Marsh, defended the idea of emergency shelters and tent cities, saying he thinks of them as triage centers, where you can “get ‘em into a place where they can think straight [and] then bring in case managers.”

When the issue returned to the two governing bodies, they offered a compelling case for why such joint meetings don’t happen more regularly. The staff reports for both the City Council and the Board of Supervisors suggested merely receiving the report and scheduling action for a later meeting. The City Council went first, with Councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini offering a motion to do what staff suggested and Councilmember Atkins seconding.

But Eureka City Councilmember Kim Bergel suggested maybe have another joint meeting next week so the city and county could take action together, as a symbol of their new unified front. Confusion ensued as councilmembers and supervisors debated the merits of the idea while trying to keep the rules of order straight. 

Ultimately both the City Council and the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to receive the report. The City Council will likely adopt a resolution of support for the Focus Strategies approach at its next meeting while the Board of Supervisors vowed only to take the issue up as soon as is practically possible scheduled the item for further discussion and possible action at its next meeting.