After another long discussion during Tuesday night’s meeting, the Eureka City Council voted — 4-1, with Councilmember Leslie Castellano dissenting — to adopt an ordinance that restricts public camping in the city.
The ordinance has come before the council several times already, and been retooled a bit throughout the process. In its final version, the ordinance prohibits camping anytime in Old Town/ Downtown, Henderson Center, the Waterfront and the Northern Gateway districts, in city parks, the golf course and within 75 feet of public trails. It also bans camping anywhere in the city during daylight hours — starting 15 minutes after sunrise and ending 15 minutes before sunset — except for when it is raining, snowing or below 40 degrees.
The primary goal of the new ordinance was to replace the city’s existing anti-camping ordinance with something more in-line with the Ninth Circuit’s Martin v. Boise decision, which held that local governments cannot punish someone for sleeping outside.
Several community members who spoke during the meeting, urged the council not to adopt this ordinance, saying that it still would effectively criminalize homeless people. Several people mentioned an issue with the fact that the ordinance makes clear where people can’t camp, but does not specify where people can camp in the city.
“One aspect that I find particularly frustrating and dehumanizing is that the council and other city staff have clearly stated EPD will not inform people on where they are allowed to camp,” Jasmine Guerra said to the council. “I hear the city’s concerns on having concentrated areas in the city that the city would then be liable for, but my point is that if we don’t want to condense people in specific areas, then we shouldn’t be forcing them out in the first place.”
The city has repeatedly said that there are many other city-owned properties where camping would be permitted, but City Attorney Bob Black explained that directing people to these properties could present liability issues for the city, and issues of responsibility for cleanup and sanitation.
City Manager Miles Slattery mentioned some of the previous issues the city has had when designating camping areas, specifically with the area of the Palco Marsh known to many as Devil’s Playground.
“We had an area that was designated as a lesser enforced area by the previous police chief,” Slattery said during the meeting. “It was, to be honest, a disaster. It ended up not only bad for the environment and the public, but even worse for the inhabitants.”
After the mass evictions of the Palco Marsh in 2016, the city designated several parking lots for camping and that also resulted in many of the same problems.
Violating the ordinance would be punishable by a fine — $25 for the first violation, $35 for the second violation and $50 for each additional violation — but the ordinance also states that it is not meant to be punitive, and that law enforcement should prioritize guidance to services over criminal punishment.
Several council members who were in favor of the ordinance said that they felt it is important for the Eureka Police to have this tool as a last resort for dealing with bad actors and to help address camping in the doorways of many local businesses.
“This is a pandemic and there are people right now in business who are hanging on by a thread,” said Councilmember Kim Bergel. “These are people who have been experiencing cleaning up people’s poop, cleaning up people’s trash, theft, broken windows — all of these things over a long period of time. And I’m not saying it’s only people who are experiencing homelesseness, but certainly it’s had a huge impact on our local businesses.”
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