Two nights of battering storms had given way to a clear Wednesday morning when Erin Powers-Taylor and Kim Bergel met in the north parking lot of the Bayshore Mall. Powers-Taylor, a volunteer with the Friends of the Marsh Group, which serves a free meal for the marsh homeless every Friday, handed Bergel, a Eureka City Council member for Ward 3, a basket full of small packages containing warm socks and granola bars. Bergel also had a car trunk full of gently used clothing. The two headed out to check on how marsh campers had fared.
The Eureka Police Department announced in October that it would begin enforcing the city's no camping ordinance in all areas behind the mall except a specific section adjacent to the north parking lot. This is in accordance with the city's Open Space Property Management Plan, which was approved last month amid public controversy. The plan calls for all "building materials to be removed," including pallets.
On the day we visited, more than 100 tents lined the old railroad tracks between the parking lot and West Del Norte Street. Powers-Taylor said two weeks ago her organization served lunch to 200 people. Fears that compressing people into a smaller space would lead to tension appear to be unfounded, although increased police presence in the area may be a mitigating factor. Residents report that Animal Control continues to visit and all dogs that are unlicensed are being removed. One woman said that the $30 needed to license her dogs is beyond her means.
A recent EPD presentation to the Eureka City Council detailed the Mobile Intervention and Services Team's (MIST) efforts to assist and intervene with the city's homeless. MIST, which was established as a joint effort between EPD and the count's Department of Health and Human Services, has been active since January. MIST workers network to get people into housing, in particular the recently repurposed and reopened Multiple Assistance Center (MAC). The MAC, once family housing, now focuses on helping couples and individuals transition into affordable housing. Eligible clients must have no violent record for the last five years, no pets, be sober, and have a referral from a partnering agency such as MIST or Open Door. They must also have an assigned caseworker, which EPD admits has been a "bottleneck" in the process.
As of Nov. 17, the MAC had 33 residents. A total of 131 had been referred, 83 temporarily sheltered, and 31 successfully housed.These numbers translate to a 23 percent success rate for the facility and its partners.
The report goes on to say that "during the past 10 months, EPD (MIST/POP officers) have had approximately 337 unduplicated contacts with homeless individuals in the city of Eureka." It says that all were offered help and that, as of the date of the report, 40 people had been transitioned off the street and successfully placed in housing as the result of these efforts. A handful of other people have been placed in long-term mental health treatment programs, the local detox program or relocated out of the area via the Transportation Assistance Program.
MIST has also "referred seven homeless female prostitutes (six adults and one 16-year-old juvenile) to EPD’s newly assigned human trafficking investigator
." The juvenile, who was being trafficked by a man behind the mall, was returned to her family.
One effort that has inspired controversy is the department's new "Homeless Tracking & Accountability" flier. Over the past two weeks, officers have collected 96 signatures from homeless people verifying that they have "been made aware of the services and assistance ... available to them."
Powers-Taylor and others find the flier degrading, a way to criminalize the houseless. They argue that while it calls on the homeless to state that they intend to "diligently seek housing or return to [their] city of origin," the services that homeless people are supposed to utilize have little oversight. Many attempt to find housing and use available resources only to be turned away due to lack of I.D., a lack of available space in programs, or disqualifying factors such as criminal records or pets.
Bergel agrees, to a point. She thinks the tracking form is a good idea, but says there needs to be more widespread utilization of private resources rather than social services.
"We need to start focusing on more private and faith based organizations," said Bergel. "We need to find that one person who’s willing to give a piece of property, approach it from a cost-savings perspective."
Back in the parking lot, Powers-Taylor embraces a woman whose camp was flooded by the recent rains.
"I know there's something on the other side of the bridge. I know there's a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's so dark right now," the woman says.