To call it being stuck between a rock and a hard place is a bit too simple. More accurately, Eureka's finding itself stuck between a consultant's plan to end homelessness, humanitarian and environmental crises and a massive concrete liability slated for demolition in the coming weeks.
While Eureka's problems with homelessness are painfully visible and have been discussed ad nauseam, the full scope of the precarious position of the Eureka City Council came into sharp focus at a recent joint meeting between the council and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. The first-of-its-kind session was called so the two governing bodies could simultaneously receive a report from Focus Strategies, a consultancy group the city paid $80,000 to devise a plan to tackle homelessness.
Megan Kurteff Schatz, Focus Strategies' founder, walked the elected officials through a detailed presentation on her company's plan to use a "Housing First" philosophy to reduce — and ultimately end — homelessness in Eureka. Put simply, "Housing First" dispatches with the concept that a homeless person has to become "housing ready" — clean, sober, employed and mentally stable — before being given a home, and instead works to get people housed as quickly as possible, then following up by delivering the additional services those people need to become more highly functioning members of the community.
As councilmembers and supervisors almost universally voiced support for the concept — even while questioning some of the particulars of implementation — Councilmember Natalie Arroyo spoke up. "I can't argue with the fact that [the plan] reflects proven best practices, and that's wonderful," she said. "But we are in a unique situation that the county isn't really in. The city of Eureka is in a situation of having an area, where people are primarily dwelling outdoors, being slated for construction activity in the not-so-distant future. ... This plan is absolutely what I want to see happen, but it doesn't address that question."
Arroyo was referencing the Palco Marsh, a stretch of city-owned property behind the Bayshore Mall that is — and has long been — home to the city's largest and most entrenched homeless encampment, with a couple hundred people currently living there despite an intensive, year-long city effort to clear the place out. The same swath of property is also home to one of the city's single biggest liability concerns — the large, concrete remnants of old lumber kilns, the graffiti magnet known as the Devil's Playground.
The old kilns shifted from being an out-of-sight eyesore to a large concern about this time last year, when a Humboldt County jury ruled that the city was liable for damages in the case of Kathy Anderson, a homeless advocate who tripped and fell in one of them, breaking her shoulder and suffering a head injury. The city, the jury found, had known the property was in a dangerous condition but failed to take any steps to protect the public, and Eureka eventually signed a $400,000 settlement check to Anderson.
In the aftermath of the settlement, city officials have pushed to clean out the marsh area. After some talk of evicting everyone and creating a temporary sanctioned campground, the city settled on a plan to push campers to a consolidated area at the north end of the property, far from the old concrete kilns. Meanwhile in June, the Redwood Empire Municipal Insurance Fund, which essentially acts as the city's insurance carrier, gave the city a year to deal with the kilns, saying it would "revisit the issue in 12 months," according to City Manager Greg Sparks.
But the Devil's Playground isn't the only liability concern. Back in August, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an opinion stating that it's unconstitutional for local governments to criminalize the homeless for sleeping or camping in public places when there aren't viable alternatives. A handful of cities — including Manteca and Laguna Hills in California — are also facing civil liberties lawsuits challenging their no-camping ordinances.
This leaves Eureka in a precarious position. The city secured grant funding for the first phase of a waterfront trail project through the Palco Marsh, which will allow it to tear down those old lumber kilns and crush the concrete into pack that will eventually be used as the base for the new trail. Sparks said the plan is to begin crushing down the kilns this spring, which he said will require a lot of space and some heavy equipment. The current plan, he said, is to store the concrete and crush it at the same open, flat, paved portion of the property in which the city recently pushed to consolidate homeless campers. The campers will likely be displaced. Where they will go is unclear.
Meanwhile, there's the very real humanitarian and environmental components, as some 200 people are living in the Palco Marsh without bathrooms, running water or trash service during the wettest winter in recent memory, with more rain in the forecast this week.
Eureka's immediate homeless problem looms in the background of the Housing First discussion. And it's the problem that has officials seeing liability concerns around every turn. Do nothing with the Palco Marsh population and the city risks losing its grant-funded opportunity to tear down an attractive nuisance, build a trail and eliminate an ongoing liability concern. Push the marsh population too hard to vacate, and the city risks a civil liberties lawsuit. Pour too many resources into managing the marsh campers and Eureka is moving away from the Housing First approach that it's committed to, as Schatz warned that every dollar and every hour spent managing homeless people are hours and dollars not being spent on housing them.
Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills, whose department will ultimately be tasked with implementing whatever directive the city council provides, said he doesn't envy the position the city's elected officials are in, noting they inherited a situation that was decades in the making. "As we try to wade through this and listen to reasonable voices mixing compassion with protecting the city the best we can, it's a very delicate balancing act," he said.
Mills said he's still resistant to the idea of moving the encampments out of the marsh when there's no legal place to send them. "If I displaced 140 people out of there today, they're going to be in our neighborhoods, in our tribal lands, everywhere, and I know that's not an acceptable solution to anybody once it's executed," he said. "I just think that the issue is there's no road map here, and city staff is really working hard with one another to try to find our way forward in a balanced and reasonable manner."
Sparks — who Mills credited with keeping staff conversations on the subject civil, productive and focused — said it will ultimately be up to the council "to figure out a way through this." To date, it seems the council has been pretty divided on the subject, as discussion of whether to declare a shelter crisis in the city sprawled over two meetings that featured plenty of cold, testy exchanges before ending in a 3-2 vote in the declaration's favor.
In a recent interview with the Journal, Eureka Public Works Director Miles Slattery sounded excited when talking about the potential new path through the Palco Marsh, saying it will be a paved trail with benches, viewing platforms and interpretive signs. Having already secured the $250,000 to $300,000 in grants needed to tear down the old kilns, Slattery said the city's lining up grant funding sources to build the rest of the trail. Just one large, entrenched obstacle remains. Or, some 200 of them, to be more precise.
But Slattery made it clear: One way or another, the Devil's Playground is coming down this spring. "We're going to make it happen," he said. "It's been an attractive nuisance for long enough and it needs to go away."
It seems a liability in the hand is worth two in the bush.