During its Tuesday night meeting — held via telecommunications, as is the current standard — the Eureka City Council discussed some of the ways that Eureka is working to aid the homeless population during the COVID-19 emergency.
Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson and Sgt. Lenny LaFrance outlined some of the work of the Eureka Police Department’s Community Safety Engagement Team (CSET) and how they are navigating some of the unique challenges presented by the pandemic.
“A lot of the homeless had routines and were used to having services delivered at certain times,” Chief Watson said during the presentation. “The COVID emergency has completely disrupted routines across the board.”
The team has been working hard to ensure the free meal served at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Center can continue to operate, LaFrance said. The police have shut down Third Street in front of the center to allow for more space, while an officer “maintains order” and ensures people practice proper social distancing. The city has also added a handwashing station to the front of the center and a board with up-to-date COVID-19 information and resources.
LaFrance said that CSET has also been coordinating closely with Betty Chinn to address the needs of her programs and services and has been assisting other organizations, such as Food For People and UPLIFT Eureka.
CSET also coordinated with the Eureka Rescue Mission to set up a new protocol for sheltering homeless individuals released from jail, providing those who were jailed for at least 14 days with the option to be picked up by Rescue Mission staff and transported to the shelter.
With concerns about the weather, LaFrance said, the team was able to secure and handout ponchos to the many homeless people. Some were donated by Pacific Outfitters owner Aaron Ostrom and others were purchased from the dollar store.
But with many other services, such as the library and the public showers, closing as a result of the pandemic, the city is still struggling to address the homeless population’s immediate needs.
In surveying over 220 homeless people, LaFrance said, many reported that they were in need of a way to charge their phones. The team has some ideas for setting up charging stations. But without constant supervision, LaFrance said, there are fears of theft and contamination.
Finding enough space for homeless people to shelter has also been an issue. Watson said that the DHHS has secured a limited number of hotel rooms for when homeless people need to be quarantined due to symptoms or a positive COVID-19 test, and was working to secure rooms for the “most vulnerable” homeless people.
Councilmember Natalie Arroyo questioned whether or not Betty Chinn’s PG&E trailers located on the Crowley Site could be used to provide some immediate housing. (A plan to turn the trailers into transitional housing has been in the works for over two years.)
But City Manager Dean Lotter explained that the city is still awaiting approval from the Coastal Commission for the required zoning change to the site. Public Works Director Brian Gerving added that readying the trailers for occupancy would take too long to help with the current crisis.
“If we were to move forward today, we would still be about three months out,” Gerving said.
Below is a video PSA from Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman regarding the city’s response to homelessness during the COVID-19 emergency: