File photo of the Eureka Police Department’s 2015 sweep of the Palco Marsh, aka Devil’s Playground.

Following a long discussion that included comments from more than two dozen impassioned public speakers, some of them homeless, the Board of Supervisors today took a possible step toward declaring a countywide shelter crisis, a step that many community activists have been advocating for years.

To the frustration of some at today’s meeting, the board didn’t immediately declare such a crisis, a move that would give the county legal clearance, under state law, to make publicly owned buildings available to shelter the homeless.

According to a staff report, the board first needs to have statistical data showing that there actually is a housing crisis — specifically, that a significant number of people in the county are unable to find shelter, and that their health and safety may be threatened as a result.

While such a crisis seems self-evident to folks who live or work in Eureka, Garberville and other local communities, a couple of supervisors expressed concerns about the possible legal commitments that might stem from an official declaration.

The matter was brought to the board by Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson and Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass. At the end of today’s public hearing, the supervisors voted unanimously to form an ad hoc committee of two from their own ranks — First District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell — to work with staff and come back next month, at the Feb. 6 board meeting, to present a recommendation on whether or not to declare a shelter crisis and form a task force to tackle the problem.

If that sounds like a lot of red tape, well, today’s public speakers seemed to agree. All who addressed the board on this matter expressed support for a crisis declaration, and many voiced frustration that the county hasn’t done more, sooner, to address the region’s high rate of homelessness. 

But first, a panel of women representing the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition, an assemblage of local groups formed to receive federal funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave an overview of some ongoing efforts to address homelessness locally.

Connie Beck, director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said that while the county and various community partners are busy developing more housing, we’ve also been losing housing units thanks to the demolition of some rentals owned by local slumlords Floyd and Betty Squires and the evictions at Eureka’s Budget Motel

“Even though those weren’t adequate housing, they were housing,” Beck said. “Folks were living there.”

As for new housing units, Beck noted that on the heels of Betty Chinn’s container village project and “The Lodge at Eureka,” there are several new housing projects in development, including some modular units donated by PG&E that just need some property upon which to sit.

Sally Hewitt, a senior program manager with DHHS and co-chair of the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition, said that following the evictions at the Palco Marsh in the spring of 2016, the county has managed to get 68 of the former residents, including many seriously mentally ill and chronically homeless people, into permanent supportive housing and 140 people into some kind of housing.

“What we’re struggling with now,” Hewitt said, “is we’ve got money to pay for it but no apartments.” The county has funds to offer rental assistance and supportive services, but it’s hard to find places for homeless people to rent, partly because of the tight local rental market and partly because of the history of the people the county’s trying to house. Many of them have poor credit or evictions in their history, and it can be difficult to convince landlords to take them on as tenants, Hewitt said. And sometimes the county will find a place that seems like a good option but the unit doesn’t meet minimal standards to qualify for federal funding.

These and other factors have resulted in “lots and lots” of homeless people “with no place to go,” Hewitt said. So they congregate at the public library in Eureka, under awnings in Old Town and in various encampments in Southern Humboldt. 

“We got the sad news today that one of the folks in those camps died over the weekend,” Hewitt said. “There may have been two.”

Nearly half of the homeless people in Humboldt County are chronically so, meaning they’ve been homeless for a year or more or they’ve had four episodes of homelessness over the past three years. That’s a significantly higher rate of chronic homelessness than the state average. 

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Hewitt said. But she said the coalition is “making some good progress.”

Darlene Spoor, executive director of Arcata House Partnership, said her organization houses close to 100 people on any given night. But she, too, said there’s money to help more folks but no places to rent. 

“Our coalition came together because we all recognize that there are hundreds of people in our streets every night,” Spoor said. “We get calls from hospitals and health care providers at least twice a week saying [patients] can’t be released onto the street or they will die.”

Supervisor Bass asked about creating a housing trust fund that could be used to offer incentives and security to local landlords willing to rent to homeless people, and Hewitt said that would likely be helpful. Among the barriers to housing people in local shelters like the Mission, Hewitt said, are that many homeless people won’t go anywhere without one of “the three Ps”: their partner, possessions or pets. 

“We need a low-barrier shelter,” she said.

Supervisor Wilson asked if declaring a shelter crisis would help the situation. Hewitt said there’s a homelessness crisis across the country, and it’s sometimes beneficial when multiple jurisdictions in a region declare a crisis.

“Will it help? I dunno,” Hewitt said. “It does lend itself to the interpretation that we’re taking it seriously, that we’re concerned as a community and will look at what [property] the county has that could be used [to help].”

Supervisor Bohn expressed frustration and the amount of resources being brought to bear on the issue. “Throwing money, staff and people at it is not solving the problem,” he said. “I’d like to see some net rewards off this. … Why isn’t it getting better?” He asked why the county can’t simply work toward building 120 new housing units, or renovate rather than condemning or demolishing Squires-owned properties such as the Blue Heron Motel

Hewitt agreed that there’s a “tremendous, shocking amount being spent on homelessness. For us to be where we are is pretty awful,” she said. “Sometimes I despair that we’ll never catch up … . But you have to be optimistic to get anything accomplished.”

Later in the meeting, Wilson suggested that the local and national homelessness problems stem from larger structural factors such as wealth disparity, military spending and a lack of funding for social programs. 

“To be quite honest, this is tailpipe engineering,” he said. “We spend a lot on homelessness because we’re in a society that creates homelessness.”

As noted above, public comment was pretty much unanimous in its support for declaring a shelter crisis, and many called on the board to create a task force to address the issue.

“If a shelter crisis will do anything for this situation, just do it,” said Sylvia De Rooy of Eureka.

Some of the public commentary was intensely personal. Elaine Johnson of McKinleyville said that during a one-month period of homelessness when she was 19 she was raped, held captive with the intention of rape and twice threatened with murder.

A 47-year-old man named Vernon Price was one of several homeless people to address the board. He said he suffers from mental health issues and has been unable to find housing. “This may not be the answer, ladies and gentlemen,” he said regarding the shelter crisis declaration, “but it’s a step to the answer. We have lives on the line.”

Several members of the group Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, or AHHA, called on the board to form a task force with representatives from a wide variety of stakeholders. 

Lance Morton of Eureka said a task force sounds temporary and suggested a longer-term commission might be a better option.

And a man who identified himself only as Tyler said he lives in a homeless encampment in the dunes near Manila. “Be nice to get someplace to be warm ‘cause I have no place to go,” he said.

When the matter came back to the board there was some confusion about how to word a motion on the matter. With help from Chief Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen, Bass ultimately moved to create a two-supervisor ad hoc committee to work with both the CAO’s office and staff from DHHS to develop recommendations about whether or not to form a task force and declare a shelter crisis. 

Bass expressed some reticence about that latter move, saying “there are legal implications” to declaring a crisis, though she didn’t say what those implications are.

Fennell and Bohn volunteered to serve on the ad hoc committee. When the motion passed unanimously, there were a couple of groans — presumably about having to wait another month for action — but also a bit of scattered applause.