The city of Eureka should be relieved local attorney Peter Martin didn't have time to gather more plaintiffs.
One week prior to the city's May 2 dispersal of about 100 homeless people living in the PalCo Marsh area behind the Bayshore Mall, Martin filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of 11 of the soon-to-be evicted. In the suit, Martin is alleging the city was violating their constitutional rights and the protections of the federal Uniform Assistance Act. On the surface, the main tenet of Martin's argument is a pretty simple one: By pushing people out of the marsh and enforcing its anti-camping ordinance when there isn't enough shelter space to accommodate them, the city is illegally criminalizing homelessness and violating people's rights.
Along with the lawsuit, Martin filed a motion for a temporary restraining order that would bar the city from vacating the marsh until the suit was resolved. He told the Journal he hoped the order would "affect not just the people that we officially represent but everybody that's down there." Ultimately, federal District Court Judge Jeffrey White disagreed and granted the order, but limited it to the 11 plaintiffs, barring the city from evicting them unless it provided for "adequate transport and shelter" for them.
In the ruling, White makes clear that he felt restricted by the case before him.
"Although the court is sympathetic to the plight of all the homeless population in Eureka, the court only has discretion to address the concerns of the 11 individual plaintiffs currently represented before it," he wrote.
Getting injunctive relief in a federal court is no easy task. To do so, plaintiffs much show three things: that their case has merits and a likelihood of success at trial; that without a temporary restraining order, they would suffer irreparable harm; and that a temporary restraining order would be in the public interest. White decided that all factors tipped in the plaintiff's favor. And further, in his ruling, the judge specified that "adequate shelter" did not include the city-owned parking lot at the corner of Washington and Koster streets, in which it's allowing up to 60 people to camp during nighttime hours as long as they vacate the area, taking their stuff with them, shortly after daybreak.
The court's order clearly caused some chaos for the city. Betty Chinn, whose foundation partnered with the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights to convert shipping containers into housing for about 40 displaced marsh residents, said she got a call from the city the day before the evictions asking her to reserve space for the plaintiffs. Several of the plaintiffs were among the last holdouts on May 2, seemingly taking their time packing their stuff, secure in the fact that police couldn't push them out before they were ready. Amber Bennett, a paralegal with Martin's office, was at the marsh all day, tracking down clients and making sure the city was making good on the court's order.
Backlash to Martin's suit has been sharp. Careful to note that Martin's office has received some positive feedback, too, Bennett said the office has gotten "nasty" calls referring to the homeless as "scum, criminals and drug addicts that need to be removed from the city," some of them threatening to drop carloads of homeless people off at Martin's house. When contacted by the Journal, Eureka Mayor Frank Jager said he was disappointed by the suit but that it was what he'd expect "from a marginal attorney who's trying to make a name for himself."
In its reply brief to the court, the city of Eureka argued that it had adequate shelter for those living in the marsh, and that it was the city — not the marsh dwellers — that risked irreparable harm, stressing that the area had become an ongoing environmental disaster and a hotbed of criminal activity.
"It has become an area associated with the sales and use of narcotics, prostitution and other assorted crime," the city wrote. "In addition, some residents have been found in possession of firearms and have threatened to use them against anyone who attempts to relocate them. Even worse, the presence of these individuals is jeopardizing a $5.3 million public improvement project, funds that could be forfeited if the current situation is not resolved."
In his ruling, White dismissed the city's concerns over losing grant money earmarked for a waterfront trail project and potentially losing its insurance coverage if it's unable to tear down the liability-ridden old concrete lumber kilns by this summer. Those concerns pale in comparison to the potential violations of people's Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, he said. "Plaintiffs' constitutional injury is irreparable, while the city's potential harms are monetary," he wrote.
The issue at the heart of this case is to whether Eureka has adequate shelter space to accommodate all homeless populations. Courts and the federal government have said it's illegal to criminalize someone's status rather than their conduct, and therefore enforcing a no-camping ordinance when homeless people don't have viable alternatives is criminalizing their state in life. Cases like Martin's are popping up throughout the country, as homeless rates increase and communities struggle.
"These lawsuits are coming fast and furious, and they're going to continue to come," said Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
What could be interesting about the Eureka case, Bauman said, is it may help answer the question of what constitutes adequate space to shelter all segments of the homeless population. Eureka claims in its court filings that the city has more than enough shelter beds to bring its homeless residents under a roof. But the bulk of those beds are at the Eureka Rescue Mission, which requires people staying there to be sober at intake and sit through religious sermons. Does that constitute an adequate shelter option for an alcoholic atheist? The city also pointed to its parking lot at Koster and Washington streets as an option. But is a place for people to sleep only to have to move along in the morning, carrying all their possessions with them, adequate shelter? These are questions Martin's case will ultimately grapple with.
In the meantime, it's clear White, an appointee of George W. Bush, was sympathetic to the issues Martin presented in the suit. And, reading between the lines of White's ruling, it also seems clear that if Martin had managed to include all 100-plus of the PalCo Marsh residents in his lawsuit, the encampment would still be there today.
As it was, Martin said he was constrained by a tight timeline and having to interview and research all his prospective plaintiffs.
"Once word got out that we were considering doing this, we went down there and people actually lined up to talk to us," Martin said. "There were far more people than we could include."
Editor's Note: This story was one in a four-article cover package. Read more at the links below.
"A Place that Absorbs Lost Souls"