On June 19, the North Coast Journal published a story about how seven trailers provided to the city of Arcata to shelter vulnerable populations during the pandemic had been sitting unused for more than seven weeks. Three months later, the trailers still sit empty, according to an email from Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer.
"Please know that the city and Arcata House Partnership have continued to work hard to open the trailers ... We are closer every day," Diemer wrote in response to an inquiry from Valley West neighborhood advocate Lucy Salazar, who spotted and photographed the unused trailers next to a shelter on Boyd Road in mid-September.
Diemer's email response also addressed several reasons the trailers remain unoccupied, including challenges with placement, funding, sewer service and the titles. Salazar was unimpressed, and responded that she was aware of at least one trailer park with available spots, and many homeless families in desperate need of a safe place to live.
"There just doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency to help homeless families or individuals," Salazar told the Journal.
Diemer did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
Back in May, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state would be providing seven trailers to the city of Arcata as part of a statewide program to shelter vulnerable populations during the pandemic, it was a win for the city. Most of the project's 1,309 trailers were headed for larger municipalities, but Arcata had presented a strong case for its population's need as Humboldt County has one of the highest per-capita rates of unsheltered homelessness in the country.
The state had purchased the trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and delivered them to Arcata in early May. According to news reports, the city expected to move the trailers to more permanent locations within a few weeks, and was working with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and Arcata House Partnership to select occupants.
But four months later, none of the trailers are in use.
"We did reach out to all the local trailer parks but none were able to accommodate the trailers," Diemer wrote in her email to Salazar. The city then looked to a site on Boyd Road, she explained, which requires the construction of a sewer, for which the city is in the process of securing the funding and engineering designs. "There may be a temporary period that we can utilize the trailers with porta potties, but that would not have been approved without the long-term commitment to sewer," Diemer wrote.
Another significant hurdle is that the trailers arrived untitled. "We have been diligently working with the county and state to get [the] title into Arcata House Partnership's name so they can be insured and operational," Diemer wrote. "Lastly needed to secure funding for support operations, and electrical to the units, which was just sealed with a contract last week."
Salazar says she understand the city must jump through some hoops but is appalled it isn't moving faster. In her response to Diemer, she cited California Department of Education data showing that 48 homeless students were enrolled in Arcata's public schools last year. "These travel trailers could have provided a much needed safe location for these kids and their families for many months," Salazar wrote.
Also frustrating to Salazar is that she's aware of a trailer park that seems to have plenty of spots open. "I am very surprised that Town and Country Mobile Home Park wasn't interested in seven more rentals," she wrote. "They have many travel trailers in place (with families living in them), and I saw over 10 open spots the other day when I drove through.
"I don't think FEMA would be very happy that these trailers are still empty after all this time during a pandemic!" she continued. "It will start raining soon and these folks deserve to have access to these travel trailers."
Come winter, the city and Arcata House Partnership do have plans for the trailers. "The trailers will be a core component as we move into winter and will allow for an isolation period before individuals are moved into congregate sheltering during this COVID-19 period," Diemer wrote. "Adding seven units of temporary housing is actually a big deal for us given the challenge that we face in locating housing units and while the slow progress has been frustrating for all of us, it will be worth it once they are in operation in a manner that is safe, supported and sustainable."
While this may not be what state officials had in mind when the sent the trailers back in May as emergency resources, some local housing advocates say that using them as a transitional spaces makes good sense.
"I think it's a good idea," said Nezzie Wade, president of the Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives Board of Directors. "Their intention is to use those trailers as quarantine facilities, and then they'll be able to move people safely into their shelter, which offers shared housing. I think following the protocols is the smart thing to do."
What Wade isn't so sure about is why the trailers couldn't have been serving other purposes for the last four months.
"They've been sitting for a long time," she said. "Government moves really slow."
Like Salazar, Wade was wondering why the trailers couldn't be placed at Town and Country Mobile Home Park. The Journal called them up and found out.
"We don't have the spaces open," said manager Patty Larson. "So we wanted to help but we couldn't." Larson then explained that the property has been pretty busy, with a lot of people coming and going. The Journal asked if seven spaces were to open up, would it be possible that the FEMA trailers could occupy them?
"Well, probably not," Larson said. "We have a lot of problems here with homeless people from the river. We have a lot of vandalism. It's a challenge."
Ashely Harrell (she/her) is a Northern California journalist who writes about social justice, crime and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyHarrell3 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Community Voices Coalition is a project funded by Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation to support local journalism. This story was produced by the North Coast Journal newsroom with full editorial independence and control.