On the dais (from left): Humboldt County Chief Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen, Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass, Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell, Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Ryan Sundberg, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson. | Photo by Ryan Burns.


The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors today returned to one of the most intractable issues facing communities throughout the state, the nation and beyond.

“I don’t know that there’s any subject more difficult than this one,” Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said during deliberations.

They were talking, of course, about homelessness, continuing a discussion that began on Jan. 9. At that meeting, the board heard from more than two dozen people who unanimously urged them to declare a shelter crisis.

A quick refresher on what that means: Under state law, such a declaration would allow the county some legal leeway in addressing the severe homelessness problem. Specifically, the county would be allowed to suspend certain health and safety regulations and make publicly owned buildings available to shelter the homeless.

While advocates for the homeless have long clamored for the board to make this declaration, supervisors have expressed reservations, saying it could interfere with federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and/or the county’s 2016 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, which resolved claims that the county violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

At last month’s meeting, the board voted unanimously to form an ad hoc committee — a two-person task force consisting of First District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell — and have them return at today’s meeting with a recommendation on the shelter crisis question as well as the question of whether to form a task force that would address homelessness issues on an ongoing basis.

Fennell delivered the findings from her work with Bohn and county staff. The ad hoc committee brought forward a draft shelter crisis declaration, though it was temporary, with an expiration date of June 1. Fennell said the decision on whether or not to pass it is up to the board, though she cautioned, “We do have concerns based on the work we’ve done.” She mentioned potential conflicts with HUD and the ADA, noting that while the state may offer legal leeway for a shelter crisis, the feds insist that even emergency shelters comply with provisions of the ADA.

Regarding a homelessness task force, Fennell said she and Bohn came up with the idea of forming a nine-person standing committee to oversee an affordable housing trust fund, making recommendations to the board on how to manage new revenue streams created by Senate Bill 2. This group, she said, would be “the go-to for anybody who has ideas for homelessness.”

Bohn brought up a suggestion made at a previous meeting by Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson — that the county use Transient Occupancy Tax revenue generated by vacation rentals such as Airbnb — and he reiterated the concerns about declaring a shelter crisis. 

Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said she likes the idea of forming a committee, and she said she worries about how a housing crisis declaration would impact the county’s commitment to a “Housing First” strategy for addressing homelessness. 

Wilson said he was concerned about the finite timeline for the draft shelter crisis declaration. “Will we have [this issue] back on agenda in four months?” he asked. And he suggested broadening the stated mission for the homelessness committee to include the day-to-day issues facing homeless people, not just the trust fund intended to finance housing.

The public comments were notable for the passion and emotion expressed. McKinleyville resident and homelessness activist Winchell Dillenbeck, for example, said a temporary shelter crisis declaration would be short-sighted. 

“A shelter crisis for four months is a joke,” he said. “It shows no political will. … You’re not going to solve this in four months.” Dillenbeck criticized the county’s adherence to a Housing First approach and, growing emotional, he revealed a personal connection to the issue. “

“I’m the father of a homeless child who has struggled with every last issue in this county, and it’s breaking my heart that people are not doing anything,” he said. After quoting some lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” Dillenbeck accused the supervisors of crushing and criminalizing people.

Others were less critical. Nezzie Wade, president of the nonprofit Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA) — a group whose approach is generally at odds with the Housing First model — commended the supervisors (and Bohn in particular) for their recent work. She said she’s been watching the ever-changing Board of Supervisors address the issue for 30 years and felt the most recent meeting was extraordinary, with the current board and county staff showing a “level of honesty [that] was the foundation for a transformational approach.”

But Wade said the proposed committee would “shortchange” the process of finding solutions and urged supervisors to collaborate more with her own group.

Regular public commenter Kent Sawatzky took a combative tone. “I can’t get you folks to get off your asses,” he griped. Sawatzky said he personally owns two parcels that could be used to address the homelessness problem if only the county would give him “a few carrots” in the form incentives, such as low credit rates. Threatening to replace some of the supervisors (and Sundberg specifically), he said, “We’ll fix this problem for you. All we need is for you guys to help us a little bit.”

When the item came back to the board for deliberation, Wilson said he felt it was important to remove the timeline from the shelter crisis declaration, and he reiterated that he thought the proposed committee should focus on homelessness and services, not just managing a trust fund. 

Bohn lamented the bureaucracy involved in government, saying he got more achieved on this issue before being elected supervisor, and he urged people to work together, even if they’re resistant to certain personalities, including his own. 

Fennell seconded that sentiment and, addressing Wilson’s concerns, suggested changing the name of the proposed committee to include the words homelessness solutions.” And regarding Bohn’s government gripes she said, “We don’t want to be a barrier; we want to work with the community.”

Bass said she could support the resolution declaring a shelter crisis if the four-moth deadline were removed.

Since both the shelter crisis declaration and the resolution establishing a homelessness committee were in draft form, the board was unable to implement them at today’s meeting. Instead the board voted unanimously to bring two resolutions to its Feb. 27 meeting — one establishing a nine-person citizens advisory committee on affordable housing and homelessness solutions and another declaring a shelter crisis with a one-year timeline, rather than the originally proposed four-month window.

Bohn, before voting yes, said he’s not sure if he’ll be willing to support that latter resolution due to his lingering concerns about implementing the shelter crisis policy changes.

NCRA Appointment

One other item of note, at least for rail enthusiasts: Richard Marks was reappointed to his seat on the North Coast Railroad Authority’s Board of Directors, where he’s currently serving as vice president, but not before facing questions from the supervisors and a challenge from Uri Driscoll, a local farrier and former candidate for the Board of Supervisors.

It seems there were some concerns about Marks’ stance on the apparently ongoing attempts to get an east-west rail line built between Humboldt Bay and the Central Valley — and also maybe his plans for the future. (There were rumors that he and his wife planned to move out of the area.)

Monte Provolt, one of the most ardent and unflagging proponents of the east-west rail, had also submitted an application in hopes of replacing Marks but he deferred to Driscoll and withdrew his candidacy before today’s meeting.

During a Q-and-A with the candidates, Marks assured the board that he has no plans to move out of the area.

Fennell seemed satisfied by that assurance but then brought up “another thing that’s been floating” — a concern that if somehow an opportunity for the east-west train materialized, “you’d do everything you could to stop it.”

This concern, no doubt, is tied to Marks’ position on the board of the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, an agency that hard-core rail advocates see as naysayers and impediments to the realization of their dreams. This perception dates at least as far back as a feasibility study that was commissioned by the Harbor District, which concluded that it would cost more than $1 billion to construct the line, hundreds of millions more to maintain it, and there’s no identified cargo to sustain it. 

Marks assured the board that he’s not at all anti-rail, and that was enough to appease the majority of the board. The one holdout was Bohn, who insisted that the east-west rail is no “pie-in-the-sky” fantasy and its estimated billion-dollar price tag “doesn’t seem like that much” compared to other transportation projects, like the state’s proposed high-speed rail project.

When it came time to vote on Marks’ reappointment, Bohn said, “I’m gonna vote no just because I don’t like to see a shutout.”

Everyone else approved, and Marks was reappointed.