The latest report from the Humboldt County Civic Grand Jury takes a critical look at local efforts to address our ongoing homelessness crisis, with extra focus paid to the law-enforcement-heavy approach in the county seat, which has the largest population of un-housed residents.
“Eureka, in particular, has taken a kind of carrot and stick approach but with an emphasis on the stick,” the report says. The authors conclude that “the use of law enforcement as a primary tool in dealing with homelessness is counterproductive.”
The civil grand jury, an independent judicial body comprised of 19 local residents, conducted interviews, studied local ordinances, reviewed academic research, analyzed data and examined how other cities and counties have dealt with homelessness before reaching some conclusions and offering a list of recommendations.
Ultimately, they suggest focusing on housing, not handcuffs.
“Our investigation uncovered ample evidence that criminalizing the human activities of the unhoused is far more costly than providing transitional and permanent housing, and support services,” the report states. “Most importantly, creating more debt through fines, and criminal records through arrests erects steeper barriers for the homeless in finding work and qualifying for housing in an ever-tightening rental market.”
The grand jury took a look at the recent history of the homeless population in and around Eureka. They found that evacuating the homeless camps on South Jetty in 1997 and the Palco Marsh, aka Devil’s Playground, in 2016 only served to disperse the homeless population — and the attendant environmental and social problems — to other parts of the community, particularly downtown and Old Town Eureka. It did nothing to solve the issues facing them or the rest of the community.
The authors also cast a critical eye toward various Eureka ordinances that appear to target the homeless population specifically, such as the anti-camping and anti-panhandling rules that have been challenged (directly and indirectly) in the courts. While the Eureka Police Department says these statutes are designed to curb aggressive behavior, the grand jury found that “most of the citations were related to activities of daily living, particularly sleeping (camping).”
The report then looks through the other end of the lens, analyzing the makeup of people within the homeless population. The authors refer to a survey of Eureka’s homeless that was recently conducted by the Eureka Police Department. Among the findings:
- Nearly half (44%) of respondents had been homeless for 3 to 10 years
- Over half (57%) have been diagnosed with or received treatment for mental illness
- Most (71%) indicated that drugs and/or alcohol had been a problem in their lives
“This does not paint a portrait of a population that would respond well to citations, arrests, and constantly being moved from place to place,” the report says. “From our interviews with the homeless and people who work with the homeless, law enforcement efforts only create more exhaustion, mental anguish, and the need for drugs to mask those states.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the report concerns public perceptions of homelessness, noting the “opposing impulses” we have: We want to help the homeless, but we’re also repulsed by them. We’ll vote for subsidized housing while also approving bans on panhandling and sleeping in public. As a 2017 Washington Post headline put it, “Americans want to help the homeless — as long as they don’t get too close.”
The grand jury report suggests that this attitude helps explain why it’s so hard to get community support for long-term housing solutions.
The report concludes with a list of a dozen recommendations. First among them is forming a committee comprised of members of the Eureka City Council, the Eureka Police Department, homeless advocacy groups and the homeless community itself.
From there, the authors suggest the committee review various city ordinances and offer recommendations for changing or amending them — or suspending enforcement altogether.
Other recommendations include:
- establishing storage sites for the homeless
- putting in additional public restrooms/porta potties
- developing more affordable housing, short-term shelter and transitional housing solutions
- holding regular leadership group meetings
- increasing funding for the Mobile Intervention Service Team (MIST) and
- developing a comprehensive process to gather demographic data about the entire homeless population
The full report can be found here (pdf).
And below is a press release about the report from the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury:
After receiving a complaint alleging homeless in Eureka were being unfairly targeted through the enforcement of specific ordinances, the Civil Grand Jury decided to investigate the effectiveness and impact of the law enforcement tools the City of Eureka put in place to address homelessness.
Beginning in 2012, the Eureka City Council (ECC) enacted and amended several ordinances identifying certain behaviors and activities that can largely be applied to the homeless population. The ordinances have had support from the business community, law enforcement, and the City Manager’s office. All the ordinances were approved unanimously by the ECC, though some are not being actively enforced.
Our investigation found use of law enforcement as a primary tool in dealing with homelessness is counterproductive. In Eureka, evacuating encampments simply dispersed problems from a contained location to a wider area of the city. Citations and arrests of homeless have not resulted in reducing the overall number of unhoused people in Eureka. Evidence indicates that criminalizing the human activities of the unhoused is far more costly than providing transitional and permanent housing and support services. Creating more debt through fines and criminal records through arrests erects steeper barriers for the homeless in finding work and qualifying for housing in an ever-tightening rental market.
Throughout our investigation we discovered every agency and organization involved with homelessness is sincerely invested in the goal of ending the crisis. However, lack of communication and coordination among these entities is hindering reaching that goal. While homelessness can seem to be an insurmountable social illness, the Civil Grand Jury recommends a number of steps that could begin to move the City of Eureka in a more positive direction.