A camp in the PalCo Marsh.
Public comment was brief, compared to previous meetings on the subject of homelessness. Only around 30 citizens came up to the podium to address the city council about the proposed declaration of a citywide shelter crisis. The declaration, originally proposed by Councilmember Linda Atkins, was reworked by city staff before being put before the council for vote. Neither staff nor councilmembers could identify an immediate effect of the declaration, which merely loosens housing and public safety regulations that impede the ability of cities to offer emergency shelter to the indigent.
Nevertheless, discussion was passionate from all quarters. Several public commenters expressed concern that the city was leapfrogging the upcoming joint meeting between the city and the county, in which the results of an investigation into the issue by an outside consulting group, Focus Strategies, will finally be presented to the public. Others said the city was assuming too much responsibility for what is a county problem, citing the centralization of social services in the city as a reason for the growing homeless population.
Brian Jessup, minister with the United Universalist Church, whose congregation has practiced ministry and outreach in the PalCo Marsh encampment, said his church is in favor of declaring a shelter crisis, but also urged the council to “shame the county.”
Once public comment had closed, Atkins opened with a motion to approve the resolution, but only after rewording the rather legalese-heavy version drafted by City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson and City Manager Greg Sparks. Her amendments to the resolution essentially brought it back to the original wording she proposed at the Jan. 5 meeting, returning references to a “housing shortage” and removing language that prevented shelters within 100 feet of bodies of water. (Environmentally sensitive habitat areas are still protected.) When questioned, Atkins said she found the language in the resolution drafted by city staff to be “negative.” Responding to a request from Councilmember Kim Bergel, Atkins also included a reference to public land, although the resolution does not specify any particular area or facility. This ostensibly gives the city more flexibility in which areas could be used for shelter, as Day-Wilson had interpreted the state code as only referring to brick-and-mortar facilities. Using a shelter crisis declaration to create a camp on public land, she said, was “uncharted territory.”
Natalie Arroyo seconded Atkins' motion, and councilmembers Marian Brady and Melinda Ciarabellini swiftly acted to oppose the motion, with Brady calling it “premature” and asking city staff to comment on whether non-political entities such as the Jefferson Project could use their facilities as shelters without the same restrictions as the city.
Sparks responded that he didn’t want city staff to become “the political football” on the issue, and said it was time for council to make a decision, not time for staff to insert themselves.
Ciarabellini called Atkins’ changes “highly inappropriate” and cautioned against changing its legal language, saying, “I prefer to trust the person with a law degree, our city staff.”
“Where’s the fire? Why can’t we wait until we have our city-county meeting?” she asked, adding that current DHHS Director Connie Beck had been in the back of the hall taking notes at the beginning of the meeting.
“Do we need to declare a shelter crisis to create the willingness for us to all work together?” mused Bergel, who spoke warmly of the cooperation between groups trying to help the homeless. She then turned to Ciarabellini.
“What’s the crisis? Take a walk through down at the PalCo Marsh, look at people’s hands, their physical condition, the condition in which they’re living, and you want to tell me that’s a choice? I don’t think so. I’m sorry, I disagree.”
Bergel said that she agrees it is a county issue, but it’s “also an issue that impacts our city greatly.”
After several more rounds of discussion and a motion by Arroyo to extend the meeting until 10:30 p.m., Leo Sears left the audience and stepped up to the public mike, calling a point of order and insisting that Atkins’ amendments violated the Brown Act. He was shouted down by audience members and, upon request, Day-Wilson acknowledged that Atkins had the right to make changes.
Brady continued to return the discussion to the subject of a sanctioned camp, asking how many of those currently living at the marsh would be willing to “live in a tent city.”
Ciarabellini said she would like to make a motion, which provoked shouting in the audience as Atkins’ motion was still on the table but hadn't come to a vote.
“No you can’t!” shouted one person.
“I would like to make a motion,” repeated Ciarabellini firmly.
Mayor Jager called for a 10 minute break to discuss with staff whether Ciarabellini could in fact make a motion and, after the brief recess, the meeting resumed and Ciarabellini motioned to table Atkins’ changes. The motion failed, with Bergel, Atkins and Arroyo opposing.
Discussion of the resolution continued, and at around 10 p.m. the council voted to approve the resolution 3-2, with Ciarabellini and Brady dissenting.
The audience gave a brief smatter of applause and then filed out, leaving the council to wade through the remainder of its agenda. Discussion over the creation of designated homeless car parking area was postponed until after the meeting with the county.
To watch the two-hour discussion, skip ahead in the video below to 1:08.