By Linda Stansberry @lcstansberry
The Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition has sent out a press release with information about the most recent Point in Time Count, which took place in late February. The press release charts a general decrease in homeless people tallied across the county, dipping from 1,180 to 618 in t
he last two years, a drop of around 40 percent. Homeless residents in communities from Garberville to Willow Creek were interviewed by volunteers on one day, Feb. 27, in an attempt to document "the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on a single night during the winter."
But the accuracy of the count is a matter of debate. According to the press release itself, it is "not a scientific survey" and a dearth of volunteers for the count may have contributed to lower numbers.
Sally Hewitt, chair of the HHHC, told the Journal that the count got off to a rough start when the original proposed methodology — counting folks in the early morning — was turned down by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The count is a HUD requirement.) HUD told HHHC that if they just wanted to get a pure head count, it would have to be done as folks bedded down at night, between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m., a methodology Hewitt said was impractical in the land of "Bigfoot and marijuana grows."
So instead, volunteers visited camps and other areas where homeless folks stay during the day with a more complicated survey system that due to timing, the small number of volunteers and the length of the survey, may have counted fewer people than are truly living outdoors in Humboldt County.
But some homeless advocates, including Nezzie Wade of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, and Debra Carey, who works with the homeless population in Southern Humboldt, see other mechanisms at work.
Wade, who sent the Journal a rough draft of the HHHC's full report, says the total is a "ridiculous number." She and Carey both allege that law enforcement agencies stepped up enforcement on homeless encampments immediately prior to the count. The Journal reached out to the Eureka Police Department and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office for statements on this claim. EPD Chief Andrew Mills denied it, saying "it is to EPD's benefit to get an accurate count of the homeless." The HCSO did not respond to email from the Journal by the end of the day, but according to Christine Messinger of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, Sheriff William Honsal has also denied this charge.
Neither Wade nor Carey could explain why it would make sense to artificially deflate the numbers. Hewitt said this rumor has dogged previous PIT Counts as well and, contrary to perception, the numbers generated do not determine funding for future services.
The numbers from the report, which are, it should be noted, very preliminary and may be refined before a final draft is released later this year, do seem very low. Volunteers counted 206 people sleeping unsheltered in Eureka on the night of the count, 78 in Arcata, 23 in Fortuna, 19 in McKinleyville and Trinidad, 19 in the East County and zero in the Garberville/Redway area. All of these numbers are a sharp decrease from the 2015 count with Eureka's being the most extreme, dropping from 513 to 206. Garberville/Redway residents, who complain regularly on social media about people taking up sidewalk space and living rough in the bushes or along the river bar, might take exception to the analysis that there are no homeless folks in their region.
Carey, who says in the past she has given herself "shin splints" counting people in the SoHum region, says the nonexistent numbers are due to her unwillingness to volunteer this year. Having worked closely with the population in the past, she has conducted many past surveys. She also said there weren't enough preliminary planning meetings prior to this year's count.
Carey also accused law enforcement officers and Caltrans of purposefully disrupting homeless communities just before the count and forwarded the Journal a notice posted near U.S. Highway 101 telling people at an entrenched camp to be out by Feb. 27, the date of the PIT Count.
Reached for comment, Caltrans spokesperson Myles Cochrane denied any intentional disruption of the camps, saying the notices were posted in the interest of public safety prior to the agency doing routine work.
"Any time we have illegal camping along our right of way we have to follow protocol and address the situation in the interest of public safety," said Cochrane. "Of course [we] are allied with [California Highway Patrol], as they are tasked with the law enforcement side of clearing up illegal camp sites on state property. The last thing we’d want is for someone to get hurt or worse because they’re spending time in an area where collisions could occur or where living conditions are bad enough to impact personal and environmental health. So we follow our policy, which is to give three days notice, and then we work with CHP and other agencies to carry out the cleanup of illegal campsites."
The emergency homeless shelter in Ukiah recently closed, forcing many homeless individuals in Mendocino county to wander the streets and sleep outside at night. The closure puts them at greater risk of being ticketed by police for illegal camping.
The city of Ukiah adopted an illegal camping ordinance in 2014, essentially criminalizing camping and homelessness.
Alan Schlosser, Senior counsel of the ACLU in Northern California wrote a letter to the city when the ordinance was on the city council meeting agenda in 2014.:
"...The Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits imposing criminal punishment for a person’s mere status. In Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the Ninth Circuit addressed this issue and held that in the absence of available shelter space, enforcement against homeless people of the City's ordinance which criminalized sitting, lying, or sleeping on public streets and sidewalks violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 444 F.3d 1118, 1131-1137 (9th Cir. 2006).1 Notably, the court concluded, "whether sitting, lying, and sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being." Id. at 1136. ..."