The Numbers are Out and the Jury is In

Hard facts on the scope of Humboldt's homelessness problem and the obstacles to solving it


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The average homeless person in Humboldt County is male. He is white, between 35 and 45 years of age. He lives in Eureka and sleeps unsheltered, probably in a tent or car. It is likely he has a disabling condition such as a physical injury. The odds are great that he has been homeless for at least two years. These statistics are all drawn from the recent draft report of the Point in Time Count, a biannual effort by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition. In January, volunteers from across the county visited homeless camps and shelters to survey Humboldt County residents experiencing housing insecurity. The draft report, due for release July 16, coincides with a recent Grand Jury report which found a "lack of coordination and collaboration" between the county, the Eureka City Council and "dedicated homeless service providers." The report also concluded that existing services and strategies are stymied by a "critical lack of affordable housing in Humboldt County."

The total number of homeless in Humboldt County appears to be large, growing and elusive. Volunteers polled a total of 1,319 people in 2015, roughly 1 percent of the county's total population. Numbers are up from the last count, which estimated there were 1,054 homeless people living in Humboldt. (Committee members from the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition say the 2013 count was missing a great deal of data.) The figures, which follow U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, do not include people living in clean and sober housing, staying with families or relatives, or any children experiencing housing insecurity.

At the July 9 meeting of the HHHC, when the draft report was released, Arcata House Executive Director Fox Olson said there were some issues finding people who "wanted to take the lead" on the count. The Humboldt Edge, a newsletter dedicated to "the creative expression of people living on the street," criticized the length of time it took to release PIT count numbers. Olson said she and others took on PIT duties in addition to their normal workloads, which was partially responsible for the delay. Committee members devoted much of their efforts this year to streamlining the questionnaire, eliminating as many write-in answers as possible so that the forms could be scanned. The two-page forms were filled out by volunteers, who asked people where they had slept on the night of Jan. 27. An estimated 64 percent of those polled were unsheltered, the remaining 36 percent had slept at a friend's house, in a shelter or in jail. The majority of those who slept unsheltered — 87 percent — were camping. Eureka had the highest proportion of homeless people, followed by Arcata, Southern Humboldt and Fortuna. The draft report did not distinguish geographical areas such as Trinidad, McKinleyville or Rio Dell.

Olson and others were careful to state the PIT count is only a "snapshot" of the entire issue. Nezzie Wade, who works with the Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, volunteered on this year's count and said the numbers may well be a fraction of the actual population living in Humboldt's green spaces. On Jan. 28, she and her team set up along the Hikshari' Trail in Eureka, where Wade says she normally sees plenty of people. But on the day of their count, it "was a ghost town." She and her volunteers walked along the water, behind the Bayshore Mall, but found few people to speak to. Those she did run into were often unwilling to fill out the questionnaire. A rumor had been going through the camps that "Federal Emergency Management Agency authorities were rounding up people and taking them away." The Journal could find no evidence to substantiate this rumor, but the Eureka Police Department and the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program did sweep the area on Jan. 29, a day after Wade and her crew conducted their count. Law enforcement would have posted notices warning of the sweep at least three days in advance of the clean-up, which may have contributed to the low number of people polled.

Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills said his department "purposefully did not do any enforcement while they were doing the Point in Time count."

Mills and other agencies have recently had to revise their original Four Step Plan to address homelessness within Eureka. Plans to establish a sanctuary camp while rapidly rehousing individuals appear to have stalled, meaning that illegal camps in Eureka's greenbelt areas of will continue to sprout. The city has pledged to make weekly visits to these camps, however, working with the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program to aggressively clean the area.

The number of PIT respondents who reported having a disabling condition has increased by 9.3 percent from 2013, with nearly half of those polled saying they have a substance abuse disorder, a serious mental health problem or a chronic physical illness. Thirty-seven percent of those polled have been a victim of domestic violence. One of the pieces of data that drew the most attention from committee members was the amount of time people had been homeless. Sixty-nine percent said they had been continuously homeless for a year or more, with 8 percent reporting being homeless for 30 to 36 months out of the last three years.

Both Wade and Olsen said that the amount of time homeless is critical.

"The longer people stay out on the streets, the harder it is to house them," Olson said, adding that a person may be sheltered for part of the time but still housing insecure. "If a person is on SSI, they'll be getting around $880 around the first part of the month, and would be staying in a hotel or motel, moving later to a shelter when the money runs out."

The PIT count also does not give a full picture of homeless school-age children in Humboldt County. A parallel Point in Time count conducted by the Humboldt County Office of Education found there were 548 homeless children in the Humboldt County school system. Another survey, which drew from a year's worth of data from school records, put the number of homeless students at 1,058 for the 2013-2014 school year.

The Humboldt grand jury report, released last month, cites lack of coordination and organization as major sources of frustration for those involved in the continuum of care, and points to the fumbled Four Step Plan as an example. All current plans to deal with homelessness are "flawed," according to the jury, due to a lack of affordable housing. The jury recommended that the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and Eureka City Council "form a housing trust fund establishing a Joint Powers Authority."

Agencies that receive HUD funding are expected to document a reduction in the homeless population. While the current PIT count doesn't indicate success in this regard, Olson said she is optimistic that funding will remain intact.

"I think what it means is that on some levels and certain categories we're doing better. For example, folks that are chronically homeless, we're dedicating more beds to helping those people," Olson said, adding that while there are mixed opinions about the accuracy of the count, the relatively consistent number of people throughout the years indicates that the population is remaining steady and being tallied correctly. "It's just a snapshot. The homeless folks in town will tell you it's a big huge undercount and we don't get the full number. I look at it as a guiding document."

Members of the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition are finalizing some of the data in the draft report and will be available to comment on their findings at the end of the week.


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