By Jessica Renae
HUMBOLDT COUNTY–With fewer than 400 available shelter beds and an estimated 1,600 homeless, the Human Rights Commission and Redwood Chapter American Civil Liberties Union want Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to declare a shelter crisis in the area.
“Clearly there is not enough emergency shelter,” said Fox Olson, executive director of Arcata House Partnership and co-chair of Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition. “On any given day or night we are turning people away.”
An average of four to six people seeking shelter each night aren’t able to find it at Arcata Night Shelter. The shelter has beds for 20 people 12 men and eight women. And that’s just one example. Another — no men in need of shelter are able to find it in Southern Humboldt. The only shelter there is the WISH Women’s Crisis Shelter in Garberville.
That’s why Debra Carey, Human Advocate for Social Change, agreed that a shelter crisis needs to be declared for Humboldt County.
“We have homeless people who are born and raised right here, yet they are constantly told to go to Eureka for services,” Carey said. “We don’t have anything. If we had anything, then I wouldn’t be calling it a crisis.”
A shelter crisis as defined by the California Government Code Chapter 7.8, is the “existence of a situation in which a significant number of persons are without the ability to obtain shelter, resulting in a threat to their health and safety.”
In early February the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors recieved a letter from the Human Rights Commission and Redwood Chapter ACLU requesting the Board of Supervisors declare a shelter crisis in the county. Human Rights Commissioner Charlie Bean read the letter to the Board of Supervisors during their Feb. 11 meeting. Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace responded via email to the Human Rights Commission, thanking them for the letter and said his board is willing to consider the issue. Redwood Chapter ACLU had not yet received a response from the board, as of this writing.
“The reason I think we are in emergency crisis is because of the numbers,” said Nezzie Wade, vice chair of the Human Rights Commission. “You just can’t ignore the numbers.”
Wade was referring not only to homeless adults but also to an estimated 632 homeless children in Humboldt County, a number that comes from the Humboldt County Office of Education. The Raven Project Street Outreach Program estimates this number of homeless kids to be as high as 700.
Shelters or Housing?
Sallly Hewitt, senior program manager with the Department of Health and Human Services, explained that the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition’s main priorities are increasing emergency shelter capacity and increasing stable and affordable housing.
According to Hewitt, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is moving away from financing emergency shelters and transitional housing since research indicates that permanent supportive housing is more successful.
“The feds are really changing their direction about what their priority is,” Olson said. “They’re actually telling us that they don’t want transitional shelters anymore.”
Instead HUD wants homeless families to be rapidly re-housed and case management services delivered in the home, similar to permanent supportive housing.
“We did a rapid re-housing project and it
was very successful,” Olson said. “The feds like those big numbers, you know 900 people re-housed! But how many people actually stay housed? That’s the missing data question.”
Bonnie Hughes, executive director of Housing Humboldt, believes that housing with supportive services is the key to helping keep
those with mental health issues or those that have been chronically homeless stay housed.
“Studies have shown that a person housed with supportive services uses fewer emergency services less and actually has increased income,” Hughes said. “This has a positive impact on our community.”
To this end, cities in Humboldt County and the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department established minimum square footage guidelines to make it easier to develop affordable housing.
“The county wants to think smaller, more affordable, more efficient in solving the homeless problem,” said Nicholas Vogel, director of Family Services for the Redwood Community Action Agency and former coordinator for Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition.
“Maybe a two-bedroom apartment isn’t the answer, let’s lower the scale size for what we are thinking about for affordable housing because there are so many homeless people that would be amazingly happy in a studio apartment.
Mia Paquette, 45, has been a guest at the night shelter for just over two weeks. She’s been folding and sorting clothing donations in a backyard storage unit. “I’m going to get this whole shed organized,” she says.
“Tough to say whether there is a shelter crisis because there is absolutely a housing crisis,” Vogel said. “Humboldt County has a serious affordable housing shortage.”
The fair market rental value of a one-bedroom apartment in Humboldt County is $722. Hughes said that the recommended limit for rent is one third of a person’s income but Humboldt County residents are paying 70 to 75 percent of their incomes for rent.
Hughes believes there is a great need for affordable housing in Humboldt County. “Ukiah and Arcata both have the same population but Ukiah has 11 subsidized housing complexes and Arcata only has three,” Hughes said.
Housing Humboldt hopes to begin construction on 31 affordable housing complexes in Arcata in 2015 if funding comes through from the county and investors.
In the interim, what plans exist to get roofs over peoples’ heads?
“I got an idea…portable teepees,” said Mia Paquette, 45, who spends her nights at the Arcata Night Shelter. “People could carry [them] on wheels, somehow portably to a campground, put up a tent and take down that same night, kind of like a portable tent. People can still have all their belongings with them and a place to sleep.”
Alternatives to traditional housing methods, like safe camping options as Paquette mentioned, are proposed in response to shelter capacity. Some advocates agree that if funding for shelters is unavailable then the next step is to establish a
John Shelter, executive director of New Directions, a program that helps homeless individuals find jobs, promotes the idea of a transitional campground, a safe place where homeless can transition on their own level to housing.
“Permanent supportive housing is great but needs more capacity,” Shelter said. “We can use a transitional campground as the first step because we don’t have enough housing and because some homeless need help transitioning into housing. They can’t handle four walls.”
Micro-housing and campground villages are already being discussed by local government. Virginia Bass, Fourth District Supervisor, showed a documentary of existing shelter villages such as Opportunity Village in Eugene, Dignity Village in Portland and Camp Quixote in Olympia on Jan. 28th to the Board of Supervisors.
“I think it is important to look at what other communities are doing that is helping them deal with issues that our community is facing as well,” Bass said.
Carey sees merit in the campground idea. “Some homeless want to camp and some want housing,” Carey said. “Some will go into shelters, some will never go into a shelter. Whatever the choice is there has to be a legal place to sleep.”
Olson argued that both campground and micro-housing models are flawed. “I don’t want to put people in little dog houses,” Olson said. “I’m a housing advocate. I want to push for more housing.”
Vogel on the other hand, while disagreeing with the idea that most homeless want to be outside and not housed, does think that with scarce funding, cost-effective alternatives like campgrounds and micro-housing can be part of the solution.
LeAnn Cameron, 53, who is disabled with a certified service dog, is not allowed in local shelters because she lost her dog’s certification papers. She proposes a program similar to both Mills Street Center and New Beginnings Center in San Rafael, Calif.
Mills Street Center is a homeless shelter where residents can commit to a long term stay and work with staff on ending homelessness in their lives. Mills Street Center residents graduate to New Beginnings Center where they learn job skills and participate in job search workshops, training and apprenticeship opportunities. Besides employment services, New Beginnings provides healthcare, counseling, substance abuse prevention and other services needed for residents to transition into long-term housing.
Cameron points to the lack of these types of support services in Humboldt County. “I want to go to City hall and say if you want people off the street, then do this program.”