Proposal For Declaration of Shelter Crisis
in Humboldt County
According to the city of Eureka's chief building official Brian Gerving "The current estimate for the homeless population in our city hovers around 2500 people". This number is certainly not a 'hard' number and it fluctuates slightly from one year to the next, but almost all agree that it isn't going to drop significantly in the foreseeable future. People who are homeless are people who by definition have very few options, and they find themselves in the situation they are in not out of choice but precisely out of the lack of any other choice. One thing that everybody agrees on whether they are homeless advocates or people who simply want the homeless to disappear is that the homeless situation in Humboldt county as it is is neither tolerable or sustainable.
Governments across the country from the state of Utah to the city of New York have calculated that the cost of criminalizing homelessness in the form of incarceration, police and court costs, emergency room hospitalization and the like are much higher than the costs of providing housing and social services to the same homeless population - according to some calculations by as much as 300%. Constant policing, evictions, arrests for quality of life crimes, jail costs, the cost of cleaning up the mess left by homeless encampments only to have them replaced by new homeless encampments elsewhere adds up to a lot of money spent in a monumentally unproductive way. Emergency room visits by people who have left their health to deteriorate to the point of crisis are orders of magnitude more costly to the public and to the individuals involved than normal health maintenance. And all these costs don't even take into account the cost in terms of the damage done to the people involved, who will be back out on the street again regardless of how much they have been traumatized or how much their short time off the street has cost the taxpayers.
it is time that the county, the taxpayers and the homeless themselves recognize that this problem is not going away. Homelessness is a reality that will have to be addressed or it will continue to fester and spread, to the detriment of everyone involved.
A short walk through any homeless encampment will reveal a great amount of ingenuity among the residents, who want nothing more than to help themselves and make the best of a bad situation. Local citizens and non-profit groups are also very resourceful when it comes to helping those in need. In the case of the homeless on the other hand, legal obstacles and the lack of a safe place for the homeless to be make almost all attempts to better the situation difficult, temporary and in many cases illegal. The simple act of designating a safe, legal place where homeless people can be would unleash a cascade of improvements that would cost the taxpayers nothing.
Humboldt residents are passionate about keeping their open spaces safe and clean, making their towns and cities livable and attractive to tourists and shoppers, keeping their parks clean and safe for themselves and their children and improving their quality of life in any way they can. Leaving the homeless with no options is therefore not an option. If people have no place to go they will congregate in public places, parks, open spaces - precisely the places meant to improve the quality of life for the whole community. No amount of police action can change that basic reality. We either share those spaces with them or we find a way to give them a place where they can stay warm and dry and get some sleep, so that they at least have the chance to be productive citizens. This is not the solution, it is only the first step if we want to change anything about the current situation.
California law provides for the declaration of a Shelter Crisis when any community finds itself unable to find adequate housing for the people who can't afford or can't find adequate shelter. Declaring a Shelter Crisis has many benefits for the government entity involved and helps to clear the obstacles that would ordinarily prevent or obstruct action to mitigate and solve chronic homelessness. It facilitates and helps to expedite many solutions and mitigations that would otherwise be illegal or held up by months or years of red tape. It also allows governments to take action without the threat of being held liable for unforeseen consequences of providing shelter to those who need it. To quote the Code itself, Government Code Section 8698-8698.2:
"'Declaration of a shelter crisis' means the duly proclaimed 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."
The government agency declaring a shelter crisis - "...shall be immune from liability for ordinary negligence in the provision of emergency housing…"
"The provisions of any state or local regulatory statute, regulation, or ordinance prescribing standards of housing, health, or safety shall be suspended to the extent that strict compliance would in any way prevent, hinder or delay the mitigation of the effects of the shelter crisis."
In other words the government entity may designate a place where people without housing can stay without risking any liability except in the case of "grossly negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct which causes injury". That entity could either appoint private non-profits to administer shelters or provide shelter itself without running the risk of being held liable for harm that might come to someone being sheltered. It also means that building codes, anti-camping ordinances, ADA requirements, health and safety codes that prevent or delay sheltering people would be suspended in the areas or facilities designated by the government entity declaring the crisis. In other words people could be allowed to provide themselves with emergency housing of any kind until permanent housing is found.
This of course would not 'solve' the problem of homelessness, but it would be a very low cost way to begin to move toward a solution, and it would provide an immediate place for people to go other than parks and other green spaces. Once people are allowed to sleep safely through the night, studies have shown that their mental health will improve dramatically, their abuse of drugs and alcohol is more likely to decline and their productivity as citizens is likely to improve along with their ability to find and maintain work.
Declaring a shelter crisis costs nothing, it clears the way to humanely remove homeless people from unsafe, unsanitary encampments, and it establishes a path to mental health and productive citizenship for people trapped in a viscous circle that destroys lives and tarnishes communities. The alternative is on display in a dozen places throughout the county, it isn't pretty and it isn't getting any better.