Eureka City Council Butting Heads With Staff & Each Other on Homelessness


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City Councilmember Kim Bergel checks in with a man camped in the PalCo Marsh. - LINDA STANSBERRY
  • Linda Stansberry
  • City Councilmember Kim Bergel checks in with a man camped in the PalCo Marsh.
The restless crowd packed into city council chambers Tuesday night gradually filtered out until only the most hardcore civics enthusiasts remained, as the Eureka City Council meeting was extended, then extended again, stretching until 10:30 p.m. The majority of the four-and-a-half-hour meeting was taken up by public comment on two contentious items: whether or not to declare a shelter crisis, and the feasibility of a temporary, sanctioned camp for the city homeless people. The two items were ultimately rolled into one discussion and the recommendations of city staff on both items was to wait until the Jan. 26 presentation by Focus Strategies, a hired consultant. Many of those in the audience, however, expressed impatience with the length of time it's taken the city to address the large number of people camped in the its greenbelts, specifically the PalCo Marsh.

While, according to councilmembers and the Eureka Police Department, a large number of people have been contacted, housed, referred to services and provided transportation back to their home towns, an estimated 150 people still remain camped in the Palco Marsh (some who work with this population said that 240 was a more accurate figure.) Councilmember Kim Bergel said that while the Mobile Intervention Services Team (MIST) and Transportation Assistance Program (TAP) have been successful in helping some, still others have relocated to the marsh after being ousted from other areas of the city, with the result being that the overall population in the area has stayed static. Winter weather has meant increasingly difficult conditions for those camped in the "condensed" area where the Eureka Police Department has agreed not to actively cite campers.

As with previous meetings, agenda items on this subject were pushed to the top of the meeting. A standing-room only crowd delivered lengthy public comment. Despite the admonitions of Mayor Frank Jager, many of those in attendance couldn't resist the occasional jeer, whoop and smatter of applause. Passion ran high on both sides of the debate. 

"Eighty-seven percent of those in the marsh are long-term criminals and felons," said Jeannie Breslin, prominent Neighborhood Watch leader. "You're asking us to support the lifestyle of criminals."

"These people need freedom from constantly searching for a place to rest," said Nezzie Wade, director of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, which circulated a petition urging the city to declare a shelter crisis.

When discussion fell to the city council, Councilmember Linda Atkins motioned to declare a shelter crisis, reading a resolution modeled on similar initiatives in other cities. Natalie Arroyo seconded the motion, but then asked City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson if it could be voted on. Day-Wilson said it could not because it was not agendized as an action item and Atkins' resolution hadn't been made available to the public and the council prior to the meeting. (The resolution to declare a shelter crisis was listed on the agenda as a report.)

At this point Atkins lashed out at Day-Wilson and City Manager Greg Sparks, saying, "I specifically asked that it be put on as an action item. Time after time after time after time, we keep sitting here and we can't do anything. This is our recommendation and our guidance to our staff, if people want to vote on it."

Day-Wilson rebutted that it was agendized as a discussion item; Atkins said this was "because the staff put it on that way."

Someone in the audience shouted, "Get new staff!"

"I don't want to fire the staff," said Atkins. "I want action."

Day-Wilson said the specifics of the resolution must be put before the public for public comment. This drew a heavy sigh from Atkins, who reiterated that she had been asking for action on the item for a year.

"What was so hard about that?" asked Atkins.

After lengthy discussion, Atkins agreed to withdraw her motion, with the understanding that it would be reviewed by city staff and placed on the agenda at the next city council meeting, on Jan. 19.  A draft of the resolution is included below. The Jan. 19 version will likely include amendments from city staff. Day-Wilson has stated her concern over how the declaration will mitigate California Environmental Quality Act regulations, although the draft resolution specifically overrides CEQA regulations. 

Despite blowback from the council's traditionally more conservative members (Melinda Ciarabellini said "I don't believe it is a crisis," to a chorus of jeers. Marian Brady called Atkins' proposal "a bully move.") it doesn't appear that the declaration of a shelter crisis will have an immediate impact on the city. It does open up the potential for city property to be used as emergency shelter for the houseless, and may cut back some of the red tape around the long-discussed sanctioned camp, but further steps would have to be taken. A timeline presented by Rob Holmlund, city development director, estimated it would take a year to get a temporary sanctioned camp up and running.  Councilmember Ciarabellini expressed concern with the lack of information on liability and an end time for the temporary camp. It is not clear why, with discussion of said camp having gone on for almost a year and the public endorsement of the city's chief of police, such concerns haven't been researched and addressed by city staff. The staff report on the topic of a shelter crisis lists the Sequoia Park Zoo, the Eureka Municipal Building and Fire Station 4 as potential sites for emergency shelter, but said sites are not a comprehensive list of city-owned properties. Discussion of a temporary sanctioned camp is also scheduled to resume with input from staff on allowing overnight car parking. Sparks acknowledged an overall lack of consensus on how the city council would like staff to proceed.

Of the ongoing conversation around the PalCo Marsh, and the multiple approaches toward that site, Bergel said,  "It's crazy, the way we've been handling this." Bergel reiterated the need for a definitive "exit plan" at the marsh. The city has steered away from incorporating features that would make the marsh more livable, like restroom facilities or Dumpsters, for fear this would give the appearance of sanctioning illegal encampments. The current workaround has been to redesignate it as a "low priority enforcement area." The latest discussion of how to address the many people camped in city greenbelts has stretched on for close to a year. 

In a phone call, Sparks declined to comment on Atkins' insistence that she had directed staff to put the issue on the agenda as an action item for some time.

"Linda believes this is an important issue," he said. "She has pushed for a long time for consideration of a sanctioned camp in particular."

In an email, Atkins confirmed she had asked the staff to put a sanctioned camp on the agenda for approximately a year and the normal process "is to request it during our council reports and if one or more additional councilmembers are interested the item gets put on the agenda."

"The Shelter Crisis Resolution has become an issue more recently than the campground idea, but it seemed logical to pass the resolution that could help ease the state and local requirements for establishment of a campground or other emergency shelter proposal first," Atkins told the Journal.

Courtesy of Linda Atkins:



WHEREAS, throughout the City of Eureka there is presently a housing shortage for low-income individuals and families that has resulted in a significant number of such persons lacking the current ability to obtain shelter and whose health and safety are threatened from exposure to the elements; and

WHEREAS, such individuals generally camp or lodge overnight on or in City parks, greenbelts and marshes; and

WHEREAS, the effects and impacts of such camping and lodging activities on the physical environment resources and on the use and enjoyment of public spaces for their intended purpose have an adverse impact on the health and safety of the people of the City, including the homeless population and those effects and impacts constitute a nuisance for which abatement is warranted; and

WHEREAS, upon making this Shelter Crisis declaration the City Council is authorized by statute to provide shelter to those persons who are so threatened; and

WHEREAS, pursuant to Government Code Section 8698 et seq., the City may declare a shelter crisis, which is deemed to constitute a local emergency; and

WHEREAS, pursuant to Government Code Section 8698.1(b), upon declaration of a shelter crisis, the provisions of state or local regulatory statutes, regulations, and ordinances prescribing standards of housing, health, or safety are deemed suspended and inapplicable to the extent that strict compliance with such regulations or ordinances would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation effects of the shelter crisis; NOW THEREFORE,

BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council of Eureka, California, hereby finds and adopts the recitals above as findings and determinations.

Resolution No. 2016-__
Page 2


1. That the City hereby finds and declares the existence of a shelter crisis in the City of Eureka pursuant to and in accordance with the provisions of California Government Code Section 8698.2(a)(1), because a significant number of persons in the City are without the ability to obtain shelter, resulting in a threat to their health and safety. It is in the City’s best interest to allow for the sheltering of homeless people residing within the City of Eureka.

2. The City of Eureka will continue to proceed with the effort to create permanent housing for all it residents.

3. That this declaration shall be effective immediately upon adoption of this Resolution by the City Council and shall run until terminated by the City Council: specifically, that it shall be applicable to activities that include but are not limited to the establishment of legal campgrounds.

4. That the activities described in this resolution are not a project as defined in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Section 15378 and, therefore, are not subject to CEQA pursuant to Section 15060(c)(3) of the State CEQA Guidelines.

5. The City Manager is authorized and directed to support and encourage groups within the community to provide emergency shelter and to work with such agencies or groups to provide safe and dry shelter alternatives for those without them in our community.

PASSED, APPROVE AND ADOPTED by the City Council of the City of Eureka, County of Humboldt, State of California, on the 5th day of January, 2016, by the following vote:


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