It's a brisk, bright morning in early fall on Eureka's Fifth Street, where a small group of veterans have gathered in one of the common rooms at Bayview Heights, a new three-story apartment complex painted in a geometric pattern of army and olive green. Five of them sit around a small dining table in a communal kitchen on the building's first floor, where decorative woven baskets hang on the wall and maple-finished cabinets hang over a white tile backsplash. The smell of fresh coffee from a stainless steel pot on the counter fills the room.
"It's really the shits because this could be a beautiful place to live," says Michael Moss, a U.S. Navy veteran, leaning back in his chair.
The group isn't happy. Their list of complaints is long and centers around the building's origin story. Initially launched as a project to house veterans only in its 50 units in 2019, funding challenges led Nation's Finest, the veteran's service organization spearheading it, to partner with the county Department of Health and Human Services to house both veterans and some of the area's most vulnerable homeless residents under a Housing First model. The result is the building's units are split — with 25 filled with veterans and 25 filled with formerly homeless people with severe and persistent mental illness.
As the conversation works around the table that fall morning, the group of veterans share their stories. One points to a boarded up second-floor window, saying someone in the midst of a mental health crisis threw a television through it. Another says maintenance issues are pervasive, with some residents consistently destroying their apartments — flooding the bathrooms or tearing cabinets off the walls — to the point that Danco's maintenance crews can't keep up with the comparatively minor maintenance needs of less destructive residents, things like water leaks and simple repairs. Then there are the quality of life issues, the folks who scream at all hours seemingly without provocation or the constant stream of visitors to the place, many of whom bang on windows or yell up from the streets at all hours. There was the woman who would show up naked in common areas, or the guy who would frequently enter unlocked apartments and make himself at home. Then there are the thefts. They say when the place opened, someone made off with all the fire extinguishers placed in common areas and all the game room's equipment disappeared. One veteran says someone even stole the seat cover off his wheelchair when it was left unattended.
One of the veterans has grown visibly uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation and tells the group to "wait a minute."
"Just about all of us have problems," he says, noting that the vets themselves had been homeless or "housing insecure," which qualified them to live there, and urging the group to show some grace to their neighbors. A few minutes later, he gets up and leaves.
The group continues, saying that in addition to the quality of life stuff, there have been real safety concerns.
Thomas Clifton, a U.S. Navy veteran, says in his couple years at the property he's administered Narcan — the opioid overdose medication — to three of his neighbors, noting that a dozen or so residents have died of drug overdoses or suicides in his time there. There was also the time he had to "stand between a 6-foot-4 guy with a knife and the building's security guard, he says, adding that he's had his "life threatened on multiple occasions" and currently has a neighbor who calls him "faggot" every time he walks by.
"I spent seven years as a security specialist and bodyguard, and do I feel safe here? No," Clifton says. "I don't know if I'm going to get into a fight coming down from my apartment, so I hide. ... It's not fair for us to have to live in this situation."
Clifton says the main problem is the county is placing people in housing without "addressing why the people are homeless in the first place."
"All they've done," Moss interjects, "is move the streets inside."
The concept of Housing First has been around for decades and holds that the biggest barrier to getting a homeless person back on their feet is housing itself, as the challenges of getting someone mental health or substance abuse treatment increase exponentially while they're on the streets. After all, experts say, simply surviving while homeless is a labor intensive, exhausting and complicated endeavor. But if you can give someone a safe place to be and access to wraparound services — mental health clinicians and case workers — they have a better chance to stabilize and improve their lives.
Study after study has also shown the strategy to be cost effective, as officials estimate the average unsheltered homeless person on the street costs taxpayers more than $40,000 a year once all the costs — from shelters and food programs to emergency room and jail visits — are factored in.
Humboldt County and the city of Eureka formally embraced Housing First in 2016, the same year the state Legislature passed a law requiring state housing programs to adopt the model. But a key component of the approach is accepting people where they are with no strings attached — people are put in housing whether they are considered "housing ready," meaning regardless of their addictions, their mental health diagnosis, their willingness to participate in programs or treatment, and their rental or criminal histories.
Sitting in a conference room at the Department of Health and Human Services building on Fourth Street, Deputy Director Jack Breazeal describes how this Housing First concept guides placements into Bayview Heights and other places. He says a tenant selection committee looks at "homelessness" and "behavioral health" criteria to see if folks qualify for placements and funding, and then spaces go to those with the greatest need.
The homeless criteria changes a bit based on the funding stream, he says, noting some require an individual to have been homeless for a certain amount of time to qualify, and there's variation in how programs view emergency shelter stays and folks in transitional housing. On the behavioral health side, he says people must have "severe and persistent mental illness," like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Then the committee tries to quantify need, which carries a financial component. Breazeal says the committee will look to see how much an individual's insurance has been billed for emergency room visits, ambulance transports and stays in a psychiatric facility, as well as jail admissions. Those who meet the basic qualifications and have the highest need are placed, so long as they've gone through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's "tremendously onerous" application process. The county's Housing, Outreach and Mobile Engagement program helps those selected move in and furnish their apartments, and then they're handed off to the county's Behavioral Health branch for case management programs and wraparound services.
Breazeal says some of these clients are already engaged with Behavioral Health, utilizing the Comprehensive Community Treatment (CCT) outpatient program, but the tenant selection committee is prohibited from taking that into account because the Housing First funding streams require no barriers to placement.
"We recognize that people getting services are generally more successful, but we can't use that criteria," he says.
Once someone is housed in one of the county's 25 units at Bayview Heights, Breazeal says it is up to them to what degree they want to participate in the county's behavioral health programs, if at all. The county offers intensive outpatient treatment, with regular clinician check ins and psychiatric appointments, as well as case management, which includes everything from help shopping for groceries and getting to appointments to a nurse who will stop by weekly to help clients fill their medication boxes. There's also a peer support program that sees clients paired with "people with lived experiences" in the CCT program.
But all these services are voluntary and not a requirement for housing. If someone starts to "decompensate to the point they are a danger to themselves or others," county staff can pursue an involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility, he says. And if someone becomes disruptive or destructive enough, Danco has the ability to evict them.
"That is something we try to avoid at all costs," says Breazeal, noting it runs counter to Housing First's core principles. "Danco has been very patient with individuals, but Danco has that discretion."
Breazeal says county staff tries to work closely with Danco and the folks at Nation's Finest, who oversee case management and support service for the building's veteran residents, to address issues as they come up. But he notes efforts to support clients at Bayview Heights, and anywhere else, are dependent on resources, most notably trained professionals to fill the county's case worker, nursing and mental health positions.
"When I think about Housing First and permanent supportive housing, the ability to have staffing for the support part should be underlined and bolded," he says.
Breazeal says you can look at the county's behavioral health clients as falling on a bell curve. There are a small number at one end that are generally going to be successful no matter what, while an equal number are probably "really going to struggle." But the majority fall in the middle, where a nurse's visit to check a pill box or a case manager's call can be the difference between someone going off their medications and falling into crisis, or remaining relatively stable.
"There are a lot of people in the middle who just need some structure," he says.
Back around the table at Bayview Heights, the veterans are still venting. There's the woman who throws things out of her second-floor window and the neighbors they suspect are on drugs or selling them, or both. One tells the story of a neighbor whose apartment smelled so strongly of chemicals the building manager called the cops, thinking he was making meth. When they finally got him to open the door, they realized he was just painting and refinishing several bicycles without so much as opening a window for ventilation.
As the conversation meanders on, a younger man — appearing in his mid to late 30s — comes into the room from the courtyard to get a cup of coffee. After he fills his cup, the veteran looks over and tells him, "We were just telling him about the time the cops came to your door."
The man smiles sheepishly and sits down, joining the conversation. The man says he'd been homeless for almost 20 years before coming to live at Bayview. His stay there has had its ups and downs, he says. With regard to the bike painting incident, he says with a chuckle it never occurred to him to open a window or put down a drop cloth before he started painting the bikes, noting that in addition to the smell, the interior of his apartment was covered with red paint, which gave the officers an initial start when he opened the door. But there are times he, too, has felt unsafe at the building, noting that he simply left for a couple weeks after another resident accused him of "snitching" to the building manager and threatened his life.
Some of the late-night visitors, the folks screaming up at windows from the sidewalk, are also directed at his apartment, one of the veterans interjects, prompting a smile from the young man.
"He has a way with the ladies," the veteran says, and the man concedes it's true and a chuckle circles the room.
Another morning a couple of weeks later, Moss says it's true some of the county clients living at Bayview have "grown by leaps and bounds" given the opportunity to be housed. Really, he says, the problem at any given time is a small handful of people — maybe five — who he and others feel seem to act with impunity.
According to the Eureka Police Department, Bayview Heights averages a call for service about every two days, or 15 a month. About 36 percent are medical aid, with the majority of the other calls coming for "minor disturbances" and welfare checks, an EPD spokesperson told the Journal.
Having served as a corpsman in the Navy, a position akin to being a medic, in the mid 1980s, Clifton was in a bad way when he was moved to Bayview from a Veterans Affairs facility. He'd been homeless and was more than $40,000 in debt before Nation's Finest began helping him out, working to get the debt forgiven and get him on SSI. When times were really tough, he says, they helped him buy litter and food for his cat, the most important thing in his life.
"If they were to show up at my door with a body, I'd say, 'Let me get a shovel,'" Clifton says.
But Clifton says his first months at Bayview are the stuff cut from a horror story. He says his apartment's immediate neighbors were both "violent schizophrenic people" who were using drugs. One of their apartments, he says, smelled "like a mass grave."
"Not a good situation," he says, noting one of the neighbors would frequently start screaming in the middle of the night about his dead wife coming through the ceiling, which would set off Clifton's PTSD.
But the biggest problem was the neighbor immediately above him, who he says was addicted to heroin.
"He would shit and vomit all over himself then hose himself down," Clifton says, adding that the awful smelling wastewater would then leak through his ceiling into his apartment.
This happened repeatedly, he says, over the course of about eight months until one day police showed up at Clifton's door, responding to a report that he was homicidal. After police looked at his apartment, and the wastewater leaking in from the ceiling, Clifton says they took him to a local motel, where he stayed for about a week and a half while Danco repaired his apartment and made alterations to his neighbor's above in an effort to make sure the leak wouldn't recur. (He says it did once, some months later, but wasn't as bad.)
Adding to both Clifton and Moss' frustration about their situation at Bayview Heights is that they feel effectively trapped. Both live there with the help of a Section 8 housing voucher, which they say can't be transferred to another facility. (Moss says he was lied to, told it would be transferable if he wanted to move after a year, only to later find out it's not.) Because they must be housing insecure or homeless to qualify for another voucher, they say they wouldn't be able to apply for one unless they terminated their lease at Bayview, which would risk leaving them homeless on a Section 8 waiting list.
Nonetheless, Clifton says he probably would have left already if it wouldn't mean bringing his cat into homelessness with him.
"I've got a cat that I love more than anything else in the world, and that's the only reason I'm still here," he says.
Touring the Journal through the building on a recent Friday morning, Moss notes the amenities. There are the solar arrays, which he says have kept his electric bill to basically nothing. There's also the game room and the gym, the common areas with seating nooks and televisions. There's the enclosed courtyard with a plethora of raised garden beds, and the third-floor terrace — the smoker's area, they call it — with views of Humboldt Bay. But all, he points out, are empty.
Things have been quieter lately, he says, adding that many residents have simply started keeping to themselves. Moss and Clifton say they certainly have, with Moss spending most of his time in his apartment listening to audio books, while Clifton says he passes his time working on miniature Warhammer models in his. Clifton says the quiet has also reduced his stress levels, noting his cluster headaches are coming fewer and farther between, his blood pressure has come down and he hasn't had any episodes with his atrial fibrillation heart condition recently.
They say building management has taken some steps that appear to be helping, instituting a new policy requiring visitors to present identification and having evicted a couple of problematic tenants. Consequently, the place currently has a handful of vacancies, which they say helps.
Perhaps uncoincidentally, Breazeal notes in his interview with the Journal that his department's staffing levels have improved markedly from where they were in the heart of the pandemic, when the county struggled to recruit nurses and clinicians.
In the past, both have made some efforts at bringing the Bayview Heights residents together. Moss and a few friends organized some barbecues in the building's courtyard over the summer, so folks could eat and mingle. They were fun, Moss says, though he adds he had to confront one man to get him to stop screaming nonsensically from the second-floor railing.
Clifton also chuckles recalling last Thanksgiving, when he says he got up before dawn to make pies for a turkey dinner Moss organized with all the fixings.
"It was an interesting day," he says, noting it ended prematurely with someone "yelling incoherently at the television," while others were trying to visit and relax.
The pair are seated at a wood table in the ground-floor common room, with a pumpkin painted with a happy face at its center. An adjacent table has a centerpiece basket exploding with fall flowers situated between two signs, one reading, "Be Kind," and the other "Gather Here with Grateful Hearts."
Asked if they'll put together another Thanksgiving meal in an effort to bring everyone together both agreed: Probably not.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].