Arcata citizens looking for homeless, crime solutions

This fellow taking an afternoon snooze in the doorway of the Jam is typical of the problems downtown merchants face. KLH | Union

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

ARCATA – A group of citizens led by the victim of a recent stabbing is urging the City of Arcata to create a camp for homeless people on land it owns at the Aldergrove Industrial Park.

“We want to see something happen quickly,” said Jeff Pauli, who was stabbed at 11:51 a.m. on March 13 when he confronted an individual who was vandalizing his office building at Seventh and F streets. Pauli’s injuries were serious enough that he had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital for care.

“It was traumatic, to say the least,” said Pauli, who helped organize a meeting Thursday evening, March 13 at the Minor Theatre. About 50 invited guests were in attendance to discuss solutions to Arcata’s soaring crime rate and to the constant problem of people urinating and defecating at the entrances of local businesses. 

As attendees discussed problems and potential solutions, security camera images of people urinating on buildings and camping in alcoves were displayed on the Minor Theatre’s screen.

Several people pointed out that not all homeless people are criminals. In fact, many of them are the victims of criminals. There was a near consensus among participants that homeless people  need a safe place to camp where they can have bathrooms and clean water and be safe from criminals.

Crime increasing

Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn said that while crime is decreasing nationally, in Arcata it is increasing.

“The numbers are not good,” Ahearn said. “We’re trending right now for 2021, year to date, a 35 percent increase in violent crime, a 22 percent increase in property crime.”

One of the problems, Ahearn said, is that California law no longer allows people to be incarcerated for lesser crimes.

“What we struggle with the most is when we arrest somebody, there’s no place to take them,” Ahearn said. So officers simply write citations.

“Trust me, I hear the compassion in the room, but I’m a cop, and there are crooks out there. I know how to differentiate between the two, and crooks need to go to jail,” Ahearn said.

Ahearn said that if done right, incarceration can help people to clean up and get sober. 

While it’s unlikely that state law will change anytime soon, Arcata Police are trying other methods to reduce crime.

In March, the Arcata Police teamed up with the Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services to launch an Arcata Mobile Intervention & Services Team (MIST.) Four days a week, a mental health clinician or case manager works with Arcata Police to deal with people who have mental health problems.

“They’re having a tremendous impact,” Ahearn said.

However, Ahearn warned that the program “is not a panacea.”

He noted that there is a man living on public property near the Arcata Community Center.   MIST has tried to help the man, but he has declined services.

Also, because Arcata doesn’t have anywhere for homeless people to go, the man cannot be legally forced to pack up and move elsewhere.

This is due to a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough beds available in a shelter. So if Arcata wants to prevent people from camping in the downtown, it needs to have a place for homeless people to go.

Need for a camp

The 2019 Point-in-Time Homeless Count showed that there were about 1,500 homeless people in Humboldt County. Dr. Darlene Spoor, executive director of Arcata House, said that she estimates that the number of homeless people is probably twice that amount.

“Most people want a place to be. They want a place to live. They want a place they can just go to. They want a place they can feel respected,” Spoor said.

Having a camp would address an ongoing  humanitarian crisis, and could help solve problems in the downtown.

Pauli said that when the Arcata House set up a tent village near the beginning of the pandemic, there was a reduction in the number of people sleeping in doorways. 

Arcata House ran the camp for 131 days. It was located at a parking lot at Seventh and G streets, and was later moved to a parking lot near the Arcata Transit Center.

The camp provided people with tents, bathrooms, showers, hand-washing stations and food.

“In the 131 days we offered that, we provided 3,576 bed nights,” Spoor said. “If people want to go to the bathroom one time a day, and we provided 3,500 bed nights, that means that’s 3,500 times somebody didn’t pee in your doorway, or have to poop on the side of your building.”

Camp locations

Three potential sites for a homeless camp were discussed at the meeting. One is the former Little Lake Industries mill site at 46 South I St. near the Arcata Marsh. The problem with the property is that it is potentially contaminated, according to Arcata Community Development Director David Loya. The city is studying the contamination and it’s unknown when the issue may be resolved.

The city also has two one-acre parcels that it owns at the Aldergrove Industrial Park. The undeveloped properties are located at 33 and 45 Belle Falor Ct. off Ericson Way. 

Loya said that making improvements to the property is the easy part. The hard part is getting people and funding to run the camp.

Spoor said that when Arcata House ran the tent camp, it cost about $1,400 a day. This included 24-hour staffing, a kitchen crew, food, rented showers, portable toilets, tents and personal care items.

Spoor said that her organization would consider managing a new camp. However, there would need to be funding.

Mike Munson, who owns the Jambalaya in Downtown Arcata and the AA Bar & Grill in Eureka, pointed that while there’s a cost to creating a camp, there’s also a cost to not doing anything.

The next step is for the idea to be placed on an agenda for an upcoming Arcata City Council meeting.

“I feel like there is this momentum to make it happen,” said Arcata Councilmember Stacy Atkins-Salazar.


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