Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Pressure to declare a shelter crisis in Humboldt County is increasing as winter nears and the Board of Supervisors has been presented with petitions bearing more than 1,000 signatures.
Two dozen proponents of a shelter crisis declaration spoke during the open public comment session of the Nov. 7 supervisors meeting, urging supervisors to put it on their agenda as soon as possible.
Campgrounds and tiny house villages were recommended as emergency shelter facilities, with a shelter crisis declaration the means of enabling them. Established through state law, a crisis designation would allow the county to use public property to set up shelter sites without having to adhere to standard building and health codes.
The petitions were presented by members of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA) and cite a 2015 count of over 1,300 homeless people in the county. Adding that there’s a shortage of emergency shelters and affordable housing in the county, the petitions call for a crisis declaration, appointment of a “countywide task force including representatives from all homeless stakeholder groups” and establishment of “multiple legal sanctuary camps.”
Nezzie Wade, AHHA’s board president, noted that advocacy for an emergency declaration began in late 2013 and since then, California’s legislation has made it more viable. “It makes us, having been aware of this for a long time, not deviant any longer,” she continued. “Like anything else, something that’s deviant, if done enough, becomes the norm.”
She added that tiny houses are “an affordable, quick alternative to getting people into safe spaces and getting on with their lives.”
Supervisors were repeatedly asked to put a crisis declaration on their agenda and discuss it.
Doing so was also discussed in April 2015, when supervisors told crisis declaration advocates that community groups need to advance specific shelter projects. They noted that the county has created zones where emergency shelters and transitional housing are principally permitted or allowed by right.
The county is also collaborating with the City of Eureka on a Housing First effort that stems from the conclusion that emergency shelters divert effort and resources away from the true solution to homelessness – permanent housing.
But Jim Glover, chairman of the county’s Human Rights Commission, told supervisors that “Housing First is a fine concept but it alone is not enough.”
The commission asked supervisors to declare a shelter crisis last year. Glover suggested that community response should flow from the top down.
“The one body that can and should address this issue head-on is the Board of Supervisors,” Glover said. “You not only have the legal authority to act, you have the moral authority to act.”
Ellen Taylor, an employee of the Open Door community health clinic network, said she and an Arcata clinic doctor collected petition signatures from health care workers and providers who are “seriously distressed by our inability to provide health care to homeless people.”
Taylor said people don’t have the ability to seek health care when they’re “constantly pursued on the street, deprived of their belongings and exposed to the elements 24/7.”
Other speakers included Carrie Peyton-Dahlberg, who said “heartbreaking stories” were told at a recent College of the Redwoods symposium by students who are struggling with homelessness as they try to gain college educations.
Southern Humboldt resident Debra Carey read a list of names of people she said had “died on the streets.” Her allotted speaking time ran out as she read the names and Maggie Schafer of Arcata used her time to continue reading from the list.
Shelter wasn’t the only highlighted need. Marianne Pennekamp of the county’s behavioral health board told supervisors that resources for addressing conditions like mental illness are limited and “the whole system is sliding into despair.” She asked supervisors for “leadership in developing a countywide support system.”
Supervisors rarely respond to comments made during the open session because the topics for discussion are not publicly noticed.