It’s been a little bit rainy lately. I almost forgot what a rainy winter can be like around here. Twice already, the county has declared an emergency and made special funds available to keep the roads open. What’s the big deal? It’s just a little rain. I know people are upset because their road is out and they can’t drive to town without hitting a bunch of potholes. Sure, the rain caused some property damage. So what? Was anybody killed?
We have been asking the Board of Supervisors to declare a shelter emergency in Humboldt County for years, because people are dying out there. The lack of affordable housing is destroying lives, traumatizing children, and killing people in our community. Every day, people, our neighbors, endure impossible conditions, suffer tremendous hardship, and every year the death toll rises, because the Board of Supervisors refuses to admit that we have a shelter crisis.
If you think this Winter was rough on your road, imagine what it must be like in a tent, or under a bridge, or huddled in a doorway. Imagine having your tent slashed, and your medications stolen by vigilantes, knowing that if you report it to the police you’ll probably go to jail. Imagine trying to raise children, in a car, through these storms, while you work a full time job. Too many people in Humboldt County face those realities, and worse. How bad does it have to get?
The Board of Supervisors just turns a blind eye. Life is cheap in Humboldt County and only landowners lives matter, to them, at least. Landlords love the situation. They don’t even have to maintain their rental properties anymore. Around here, landlords expect new tenants to clean up after the old ones, before they move in, maintain all of the amenities, for the duration, and renters know that a single complaint will likely result in eviction. Landlords laugh all the way to the bank, meanwhile the Board of Supervisors concocts new laws to criminalize the people who have been squeezed-out of their homes, for just trying to survive. It’s a fucking crime.
This past Superbowl Sunday I attended a meeting of the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission at the Redwood Playhouse in Garberville. Instead of seeing Lady Gaga’s breathtaking leap from the Superdome, I watched Byrd Lochte scribble down all of our concerns in multi-colored magic marker on a big pad of paper, and instead of the Tom Brady’s thrilling, come from behind, victory, I heard one of Southern Humboldt’s houseless individuals, Okra P Dingle, explain, articulately, in very polite and civil terms, how difficult it is for working people to survive around here, and why it is so important to declare a housing crisis, right now.
Okra wasn’t the only person to speak, but he sure gave them an earful. Everything the Human Rights Commission heard that night related to the lack of housing. Concerns included: untrained vigilante groups who illegally evict people from private and public property, with the Sheriff’s blessing, property damage and theft by vigilantes during those evictions, violent crimes against homeless people on the streets of Garberville, and harassment, by merchants and law-enforcement, of people perceived as “homeless.”
People told their stories about how many months, or years, they lived in their car, or camped-out, while working a local job and hunting for a place to rent, before they ever found a place to look at. People also talked about how they got pushed into the marijuana industry, because pot jobs often include a place to live, and how much more vulnerable workers are, when their boss is also their landlord, and everything is “under-the-table.” I, of course, brought up the impact of the War on Drugs on our local housing situation, and how much of our residential housing has been taken over by marijuana growers, who displace honest working people from the available housing.
The HRC Commissioners themselves were cordial and welcoming. They brought cookies and coffee, but they reminded us, repeatedly, that they have no authority. They can take down our concerns, relay them to the Board of Supervisors, and make recommendations, but they cannot compel anyone to do anything. In fact, the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission has already recommended that the County declare a shelter crisis, but the Board of Supervisors declined to take action.
When asked, on a recent radio interview, about the number of vacancies on the Human Rights Commission, and why they have no budget, 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell pointed out that at least we have a human rights commission. A lot of counties don’t. I think it’s important to remind her, and ourselves, that the reason we have a Human Rights Commission is that we have a long, rich, history, and culture, of human rights abuse here in Humboldt County. We did genocide here. Big time. Not that long ago.
No one was held accountable. The people who committed those atrocities remained pillars of the community. They raised families and passed those beliefs and attitudes on to their progeny. Those attitudes and ideas continue to poison our culture to this day, and we can see those attitudes reflected in our current Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, and in prevailing attitudes towards the poor.
We have a Human Rights Commission to make recommendations about how decent human beings should treat each other, because, and only because, we have demonstrated, violently, repeatedly, and dramatically, a distinct lack of respect for human rights, as a community. We don’t respect human rights here in Humboldt County. We take advantage of people, push them around, and take whatever we want from them, because, who is going to stop us?
That’s just the kind of people we are. We don’t really even understand the concept of human rights, let alone know how to respect them. That’s why we have a Human Rights Commission, and why anyone who does respect human rights, should insist that the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors heed the recommendations of the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission, and declare a shelter emergency in Humboldt County, now.