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The Impossible Possible

California fires and winter cold prompt action on 24-7 homeless shelter

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With roughly three weeks on the clock, members of the Humboldt Homeless and Housing Coalition are fighting time, weather and the specter of past failures to accomplish an utterly reachable but seemingly audacious goal: A six-month, 24-hour homeless shelter that will shield people from the rain and cold, beginning Dec. 1. Sally Hewitt, senior program manager for the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and co-chair of the HHHC, thinks it can be done.

"It's an ambitious goal," she told the Journal in a phone interview. "I think we can do it if everyone throws in what they can."

In her email to coalition members announcing the Nov. 2 planning meeting, Hewitt asked them to bring information about possible locations, staffing, services and supplies.

With a tight two-hour allotment for the meeting and a meager budget ($60,000 left over from a public health project), it would take discipline to steer the project away from some of the common pitfalls that have kneecapped previous efforts. Representatives from a spectrum of organizations, including the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, Partnership HealthPlan, Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, St. Joseph Hospital, Arcata House Partnership and Veteran's Services attended the meeting, along with several community members from Southern Humboldt.

After introductions, coalition members delivered an update on the current extreme weather shelters, which open at night during severe cold or rainstorms. Mike Newman, a member of the HHHC executive committee, said the Eureka Rescue Mission will start accepting dogs this winter as long as there are enough crates. Hewitt announced that the Southern Humboldt extreme weather shelter committee would receive a small stipend from DHHS to spend on renting churches or other venues, an attempt to sweeten the pot for potential hosts. Lack of facilities in Southern Humboldt has been an ongoing problem since the closure of the Veteran's Hall and a fire that burned down the Community Presbyterian Church (See "Away From the Rain," Oct. 26).

In her interview with the Journal, Hewitt explained she and the rest of the coalition are particularly concerned about an influx of refugees needing shelter this winter due to the recent fires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, which destroyed nearly 9,000 structures and displaced many people. The fire also swept through an area where there was a large homeless encampment, Hewitt said.

"They're not going to go south," she said. "Rents down there have already gone up 36 percent. There's just not enough housing here to absorb those folks."

Last year it looked as though the coalition might partner with the Salvation Army to run a 14-hour-a-day shelter but, as Roger McCort of the Salvation Army explained during the meeting, the Eureka corps' contract with Silvercrest Senior Residences, where its headquarters are located, prohibits the location from being used as a shelter. The corps may still provide some sort of logistical support, but a suitable location may remain the biggest stumbling block.

"Everyone's drooling over that Kmart," Hewitt acknowledged after the subject of the recently-closed Big Kmart on the south end of Eureka was raised by several committee members. The structure has been graffitied and several small fires were discovered on the property since it was shuttered in early October. The Kmart corporation retains the lease for five more months.

"The owner wants nothing more than for it to be occupied, ideally by a business," said Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson. "Always the age-old issue: Is it going to be managed, and what impact it's going to have on the surrounding area?"

Newman, along with Eureka housing project manager Melinda Peterson, agreed to look into whether the building's owner would entertain an offer. Several other locations, including an industrial space in Arcata and a county building in Eureka, were also floated and assigned for investigation. Portable toilets, a food truck and mobile showers may be used to supplement existing facilities.

Watson reiterated that any shelter would need to be "low barrier," meaning it would ideally accommodate people with drug, alcohol, mental health and other issues. Hewitt referenced the "three Ps" that often keep people from seeking shelter: pets, partners and possessions. Past dramas were mentioned, including the failure to establish a day shelter at Runeburg Hall due to a community outcry, and the Mycroft building, a former senior center on Pine Hill that was overrun by squatters.

"From a law enforcement officer standpoint, we would love for there to be a place for people to be," said Watson. "But we have to consider if there was a place for people to go, is it going to increase people coming to Eureka for services?"

Nezzie Wade of AHHA referenced her organization's intent to petition the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 7 to declare a countywide shelter crisis, which would relax some restrictions around where shelters could be established, potentially making possible a tiny house village or overnight parking area. This would, ostensibly, allow shelters to be established in areas beyond Eureka, where a citywide shelter crisis declaration has already made possible a shelter project run by the Betty Kwan Chinn Foundation. Edie Jessup of AHHA stated the need for engagement with people in the shelter, which might mitigate the impact to neighboring businesses and residences. Hewitt echoed this idea, referencing the collaborative Mobile Intervention Support Team, which works with people on the street to connect them to services, and said there could be other volunteer-led services within the shelter like tai chi and yoga. Lynette Mullen, homeless services manager for EPD, said the Job Market and College of the Redwoods might be potential service providers as well. Two coalition members agreed to approach the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce to see if local growers were interested in contributing money to the project.

Despite the relatively smooth sailing of the meeting ­— which concluded a half-hour early — large gaps in services were highlighted. A low-barrier shelter like the one proposed might not accommodate or protect the most vulnerable in Humboldt's homeless population: families with children and unaccompanied minors. According to Roger Golec, the Humboldt County Office of Education's foster and homeless youth services coordinator, the majority of homeless people in the United States are under the age of 7. This statistic shocked several members of the committee and prompted some mild pushback from Robert Ward, a DHHS administrative analyst, who said that the Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness is different than the definition Golec was using. Nevertheless, unaccompanied minors currently do not have a designated shelter. The Multiple Assistance Center, which once took families, has been repurposed as a drug treatment center. Spoor said Arcata House received four to five calls every day from parents sleeping in cars with their children. The Eureka Rescue Mission has a women's shelter with rooms for families but it is substantially smaller than the men's shelter, and it is not ADA-accessible.

The coalition will convene again on Nov. 13 to share its findings. Hewitt and others are hoping for a venue so fundraising and resource pooling can begin in earnest. But at least one site has been eliminated. Rob Holmlund, who was contacted by the Journal and by Newman, responded via email to say the owner of the Kmart site, McNellis Partners, was not interested in leasing the site as a shelter.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Roger McCort's name. The Journal regrets the error.

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