It's shortly before noon on April 18 and, in a vacant lot at the corner of Third and Commercial streets in Eureka, a homeless man is splayed out between two shipping containers, fast asleep, his maroon jacket acting as a pillow to keep his head off the gravel.
Five days earlier, one of Humboldt's heaviest political hitters and its most prized philanthropist shocked just about everyone, announcing their intent to pair up, purchase Connex shipping containers and renovate them into housing for about 40 displaced homeless people. This, said Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights founder and sitting Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Lee Ulansey and Betty Chinn at the hastily called April 13 press conference, would offer a small, temporary solution to the question of what do with the estimated 100 to 200 homeless people Eureka is evicting from the Palco Marsh behind the Bayshore Mall on May 2 to make way for a trail project.
At first blush the pairing of Chinn and HumCPR is an odd fit, and the proposal is ambitious, both because of its contents and its 19-day timeline from announcement to implementation.
The plan, as detailed at the press conference, is to have HumCPR acquire the shipping containers with $130,000 in funding from the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services. HumCPR members and local contractors will then renovate the containers, turning each into four 10-by-8-foot rooms, each with a locking door and window, and fence in the vacant lot owned by Mercer Fraser at Third and Commercial streets.
Chinn and her staff at the Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center will run the encampment with the help of three newly hired caseworkers (whose salaries will apparently be paid by HumCPR). They will determine who's allowed to move in, and develop case management plans for residents, connecting them with existing county and city services, with the hope of moving them out into more permanent housing within 60 days. There will be bathroom facilities on site and Chinn said she will provide residents with three daily meals.
The entire encampment will be in place for six months, Ulansey said, though he added the containers can easily be moved elsewhere if needed.
The plan appears to have come together quickly and a host of questions remain. As the Journal went to press April 19, five shipping containers sat on the property in varying early stages of renovation, but the Eureka City Council had not amended its shelter crisis declaration to include the Mercer Fraser property or decided whether to authorize staff to enter into an agreement with GECOP. The county has not yet agendized the potential expenditure of $130,000 in DHHS funds. And, as of the press conference, Ulansey said he and HumCPR Executive Director Alec Ziegler still hadn't figured out exactly how to insure the camp.
Eureka City Manager Greg Sparks said he was only approached about the plan four days before emails were sent announcing the press conference. "We're trying to react quickly to this proposal because it came together pretty quickly," Sparks said. "They made the decision to order the Connex boxes, even ahead of council approval, you might say, at their own risk."
Things have moved so quickly, in fact, that a group of unnamed local business and property owners have tapped Eureka attorney Andrew Stunich to write a letter to the city threatening litigation if the project moves forward, alleging that the city failed to adequately notice neighbors of the proposed encampment and that elected officials committed "flagrant violations" of California's open meeting laws by making a "behind closed doors decision" without any public input.
Stunich's letter also takes aim at the the plan's intent to take in those who have nowhere else to go, including sex offenders, drug addicts and the mentally ill, saying it will bring a criminal element into the neighborhood.
Sparks said HumCPR was slated to meet with local business and property owners in an attempt to address some of their concerns.
California Coastal Commission North Coast District Manager Bob Merrill said the city will also need to issue a coastal development permit for the project or apply for an emergency waiver, for which he said the project would likely qualify. But, theoretically, that's a step that should take place before work begins. Merrill said development in the coastal zone is defined so broadly as to include any change of use for a property or even the storage of material at a site, and the containers have already been delivered and renovation work has begun.
At the press conference, Mayor Frank Jager and City Councilmember Marian Brady expressed relief and gratitude that someone in the private realm had stepped forward with a plan.
"The council and myself are delighted that HumCPR has stepped up," said Jager. "This affects the business community more than anyplace else. When [county Supervisor Rex Bohn] contacted me last week and mentioned this is in the works, I couldn't have been more happy."
It's also worth noting that it's up for debate whether this project falls within the scope of the Housing First philosophy recently adopted by both the county and the city. Housing First holds that the best way to end homelessness is for communities to put time and resources into placing people directly into permanent housing; any attempts to better manage the homeless population only distract from that. But at the press conference, Supervisor Virginia Bass and others said this expenditure of $130,000 for temporary living quarters is actually in line with Housing First, as the encampment will act as an intake center from which people can be moved into permanent housing.
Whether or not the proposal fits with Housing First, it seems to have a lot of momentum. It's also an unexpected partnership, pairing Chinn, who has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to feeding and caring for the area's homeless people, with HumCPR, a private political action organization dedicated to protecting property rights and boasting 5,500 members. But homelessness has never really been an issue on HumCPR's public radar. When the organization interviewed county supervisorial candidates in 2014, it specifically asked them about the general plan, visions for rural living, ideas to support new industry and economic growth, spending priorities, the Williamson Act and road maintenance. It did not ask about homelessness.
It seems the only time the organization has publicly addressed the issue was in May of 2014, when then-Executive Director Sally Macdonald penned a column for the Times-Standard. At the time, the board of supervisors was considering a proposal by the planning commission — which includes both Ulansey and fellow HumCPR founder Bob Morris — to expand Housing Opportunity Zones, focused growth areas that relax permitting and zoning requirements, into rural areas of the county. In her column, Macdonald praised the proposal as a path to address Humboldt's affordable housing shortage.
"This deficiency is evident to all of us as we drive the streets of any of our communities. The plight of the homeless is obvious and unmistakable," Macdonald wrote, explaining that the proposal to ease building restrictions in the county would spur development and open up affordable housing.
The supervisors ultimately denied the planning commission proposal. But, at the April 13 press conference, Ulansey struck a similar note to Macdonald when asked about affordable housing stock in Humboldt County. He said building is difficult in Humboldt County, stressing that there's a general housing shortage in the county and that any new development would trickle down to help low income folks. The county, he said, needs more housing of all types.
Asked about his group's motivation for wading into what, for the last year, has been Eureka's most complicated and contentious debate, Ulansey said he, Ziegler and some HumCPR members have been watching the situation unfold in the Palco Marsh as the May 2 eviction deadline approaches.
It was clear, he said, that somebody had to do something.
Track this story as it develops at northcoastjournal.com