The city of Eureka's multi-year effort to clear the PalCo Marsh homeless camp, amid infighting and public backlash



Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series looking back at the May 2, 2016, clearing of homeless encampments from the PalCo Marsh. Part one is "Prelude to a Sweep." For a brief guide to the key players involved in this story and the thousands of documents that made it possible, click here.

The problem was complicated. Several hundred people were living in tents in an entrenched community behind Eureka's Bayshore Mall, in a blighted wetland called the PalCo Marsh. The city was prepared to embrace a Housing First strategy to address its high rate of chronic homelessness, but this was a years-long solution and, prompted by a lawsuit and the deadline to break ground on a new trail, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant funding on the line, it became clear in 2015 that the PalCo Marsh encampment had to move.

But how to achieve that task, and where, exactly, the estimated 300 people — some of whom had been there for decades — would go, would take more than a year to decide. It was a year marked by bureaucratic indecisiveness and bickering between city employees about who was meant to shoulder the monumental task.

The problem was complicated because, at the end of the day, it was about people, and people are complicated. Miles Slattery, the city's Parks and Recreation director, knew this. His staff was tasked with cleaning and maintaining the city's greenbelts, and the presence of illegal camps made it increasingly difficult. One man waved a gun at him and said, "get off my land." Another set a dog on a city worker. Interpretive signs were vandalized. In emails obtained by the Journal through a public records act request, Slattery would refer to a sense of entitlement among some people in the marsh and express frustration that city land was being treated like private property, and being trashed.

But Slattery also knew the population wasn't a monolith. He gave a girl who said she'd been raped a ride out of the marsh. He offered jobs to people who wanted to work, eventually starting a job training program for parolees. He launched a program to offer homeless children free access to recreational programs. His job, and his department, grew and developed around the extraordinary task facing the city. But it couldn't do everything.

It couldn't, for example, help someone like Kathleen Hytholt, a middle-aged woman who in February of 2015 was asked to leave a piece of public property near the Humboldt County Office of Education. What city resources were available for someone like Hytholt, who could barely walk and lived surrounded by a mix of trash and treasured possessions? As officers talked to her and a Sheriff's Work Alternative Program crew stood by to eradicate her camp, Hytholt cried. She had no car, no income, no one to take her in. To help solve a problem like Hytholt, you'd have to solve the underlying issues causing her homelessness, and that was beyond the calling of city employees. Slattery said he was consistent: It was his team's job to maintain city property, the job of the police department was to enforce the municipal code forbidding camping.

Like Slattery, Andrew Mills, who became the city's chief of police in 2014, also found his department's role tested and changed under the weight of the task. Along with citing people for camping illegally, breaking up fights or responding to shoplifting reports at the Bayshore Mall, officers also served as pinch-hitter social workers to the mentally ill and chronically indigent. Mixed in and overlapping with this population are seasonal workers in the marijuana industry, or "trimmigrants," addicts and people Mills simply refers to as "predatory." Mills says officers can find "30 to 40 percent" of their day eaten up by responding to issues related to homelessness.

"It has become the overwhelming part of the responsibility," Mills said in a retrospective interview. "It hurts the city because so much time is spent with homeless stuff ... there's nobody else out there to take care of that issue."

On a daily basis, EPD officers contacted people like Lloyd Parker, a professional carpenter who became homeless in 2013 when his wife died, and who testified that the marsh "felt like home to him." Parker's name would periodically show up in arrest sheets and he would also go on to become a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit aimed at halting the city's May 2, 2016, marsh evictions. As part of the city's settlement, he was offered housing but was listed as homeless two months later when arrested for allegedly burglarizing the Humboldt Waste Management Authority.

Kathleen Hytholt, before her MIST intervention. - LINDA STANSBERRY
  • Linda Stansberry
  • Kathleen Hytholt, before her MIST intervention.

Hytholt would go on to be one of the successes of the Mobile Intervention Services Team, a collaboration between the Eureka Police Department and Humboldt Department of Health and Human Services. Her MIST worker stuck with her when she bounced out of the Multiple Assistance Center, helped her get identification and enrolled in general relief. Six months after the SWAP visit, she would have a room in a house and visit the marsh to see her friends with manicured nails and a spotless leather jacket. Parker's July 2016 arrest was his last by EPD; a MIST officer recently saw him looking much more stable and healthy.

Something apparently worked for Parker and for Hytholt, but was it the same solution that would work for the several hundred other people living behind the mall — the schizophrenic and addicted, the down-on-their-luck and the predatory, the families and the semi-employed, or the dozens of people EPD said were part of a "hardened criminal element?"

September 2014 - March 2015: Fury, Flood and Fire

In the fall of 2014, the city was coming under increased pressure to answer that question. A flurry of emails directed at the city council around that time included rumors of drug use, garbage dumping, human waste, fires and other legal, environmental and humanitarian issues. But alongside the complicated logistics of what it would take to remove the encampment were budgetary concerns and the question of who should shoulder the burden. The onus was on Parks and Recreation to maintain the land and on EPD to patrol it, but neither had the time nor the resources to handle the full scope of those tasks, much less to address the root causes of homelessness in Eureka.

In January of 2015, an anonymous county employee threatened to contact the Environmental Protection Agency if an encampment at the foot of Del Norte Street, and its accompanying footprint of human waste, wasn't addressed. On the night of Feb. 18, a Parks and Recreation employee reported multiple small fires associated with homeless people across the city, including one at City Hall.

"Let's talk to Andy [Mills] when I get back," replied Slattery. "If this shit isn't reason to get serious about our illegal encampments, I don't know what is."

Both EPD and Parks and Recreation had their budgets cannibalized to pay for Sheriff's Work Alternative Program crews to clean up illegal encampments. By March of 2015, the tension between the two departments was beginning to spill into everyday interactions. An email from Mills to Slattery offering to buy a beer for whoever in the facilities department could fix EPD's heating system was met with a snippy reply.

"Sure ... as soon as you find someone who knows how to get illegal campers off the open spaces we maintain," fired back Slattery, with a winky emoji.

"Easy turbo ... [City Manager] Greg [Sparks] asked me to put up 10K for SWAP activities ...," said Mills.

Slattery's tone in his reply was softer, adding that his department had put up $20,000. Mills responded with a crack about the fire department's plush budget.

April 2015 - July 2015: Creative Solutions

Kathleen Hytholt, after her MIST intervention. - LINDA STANSBERRY
  • Linda Stansberry
  • Kathleen Hytholt, after her MIST intervention.

Just a few months earlier, Eureka voters had passed a tax extension to help protect public safety spending. But this could not shelter EPD or other agencies from a budget shortfall, announced in April of 2015, that would result in $900,000 in cuts to the police and fire departments. In an op-ed to the Times-Standard, Slattery didn't come across as entirely sympathetic, saying non-public safety departments had been tightening their belts for years and had "bled and bled and bled."

The budget woes coincided with increased pressure from outside sources. In February of 2015, the city settled a lawsuit brought by Kathy Anderson, a homeless advocate who fell in the old lumber kilns in PalCo Marsh and broke her shoulder, agreeing to pay out $400,000. The settlement drew the attention of the city's insurance carrier, which threatened to pull the city's coverage if the "dangerous nuisance" of the kilns wasn't removed and the area cleared out.

On April 15, EPD launched the first phase of a four-part plan, descending on the marsh with 50 officers from seven agencies, contacting 93 people, arresting 27 and confiscating drug paraphernalia, methamphetamines and weapons. The raid, titled "Operation Clean Sweep," was an effort to remove the "criminal predators [that] have sheltered themselves among the more traditional homeless populations along the bay," the city explained in a press release.

Subsequent stages of the four-part plan would involve connecting those remaining in the marsh with services, moving people into temporary camps while the marsh was cleaned and using the Multiple Assistance Center as a triage facility to connect people with housing.

The idea of city-endorsed temporary camps was met with mixed reactions. But emails from Eureka residents to city department heads had a common theme: Not near my house, not near my business. (Potential sites at this point included the Balloon Track property and another near the Samoa Bridge.) The idea of a sanctioned camp on city property, with a nonprofit or city employees running it, had been discussed for years but never gained traction. But for Mills, who was faced with the legal and logistical headache of trying to arrest away the problem, the choice was clear.

"I can't kick people out until we have someplace for them to go," he said at the time. "We fully comprehend homelessness is not a police problem."

Public concern on all sides of the issue began to escalate. In June, a loosely-organized advocacy group, Friends of the Marsh, began serving food and helping people in the marsh collect their garbage for disposal by the city. The Unitarian Universalist Church tried to coordinate with the city to provide tarps and tents. A photo of a large pile of trash, rimmed by carts, quickly went viral on social media as an example of the environmental devastation caused by the marsh encampments. In a phone call, Slattery confirmed to the Journal that the pile was a combination of consolidated trash from the camps and household trash dumped by people who had breached the fence at the far end of the parking lot.

By the end of June, some 10 weeks after it had been announced, Mills' four-phase plan was dead in the water. Sparks said the temporary camps had been greatly "deprioritized" and effectively removed from the plan.

Meanwhile, Slattery had his own strategy and notified department heads in a June 11 email that, due to an official EPA complaint about environmental damage, EPD and Parks and Recreation would collaborate to clean a different section of the area every Thursday. Officers would give 72-hours notice to campers to remove their personal property before SWAP crews would descend to clean what was left.

"Having a routine cleanup will alleviate many concerns about supposed 'harassment,'" wrote Slattery, possibly referring to advocates who saw the sweeps and intermittent cleaning efforts as an intentional disruptor. "It is a program to address our responsibility as a property owner. Those illegally camping on our property will know that every Thursday is the day to remove all personal belongings because the city is coming to clean ;-)."

In a later exchange with Sgt. Mike Guy, EPD's homeless officer, Slattery was more candid about the true intent of the rotating cleanups. Guy, responding to news of the weekly cleanups, wrote to Slattery saying, "So just between you and me, these people get free food, free medical, free dental, free vision, free vet care ... and now free garbage pick up?! WTF!"

Slattery replied that he "couldn't agree more," adding he hoped the disruption would separate the truly destitute from the entitled.

"The liability stuff to me is irrelevant as long as we don't take sleeping bags, tents and real personal belongings," he wrote. "I think we need to inconvenience them as much as possible. If we have a weekly presence ... some of the 'I think it's hip to be homeless' inbreeds will stick to couch hoppin or move on."

July 2015: Deadline Extended

On July 15, the city announced that those camping in the marsh had 10 days to get out. To bolster the case for eviction, Slattery presented the city council with numbers on the amount of trash collected and photos of vandalized city property. EPD employees gathered statistics on the number of available beds at the Rescue Mission and the criminal history of homeless people contacted by officers. The number of shelter beds available was crucial to make the case that EPD was not rousting people without adequate available shelter, a distinction that could save the city from a potential lawsuit.

But three days before the deadline, Mills sent a memo to department heads saying, in no uncertain terms, that his officers would not "forcibly remove people from their tents." Mills said this was in accordance with legal standards that prevented officers from entering structures without warrants but he also seemed to have a larger concern about the pending eviction.

"We are not interested in displacing homeless people," Mills stated.

Looking back, Mills said the eventual success of the May 2016 clean up was due to EPD being allowed to strategize on its own schedule. He declined to comment on the many false starts that preceded that date, but said he was concerned that a wholesale eviction would result in "200 tents on Fifth Street" the next day. Utilizing social service workers to help connect people with resources and housing encouraged "fractured displacement" rather than the wholesale relocation of several hundred people.

"I feel like a lot of this fell on my shoulders," Mills said when asked whether he would change approaches if he had a chance to do it all over again. "It raised a lot of ire. Taking a step back sooner would have been positive."

August 2015 - October 2015: City Council tries, fails to take a leadership role

At the end of August, Slattery emailed department heads to report that his crew was "frustrated" by people not moving their belongings. He was concerned about the liability of "allowing this to continue" and attached a series of photos of trash, shopping carts, "honey pots" (makeshift toilets), needles and 10 marsh rats that had been trapped and "seemed to be prepped for cooking."

Sparks forwarded the email to the council, adding, "EPD has not issued citations for camping, and I would like to have them start that process for encampments that refuse to move." Councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini suggested contacting the county to declare a public health emergency. Mills and Slattery also exchanged a series of emails about the legal ramifications of removing people's property, with Slattery quibbling over federal law and whether it applied to Eureka.

"Miles, I have never run to the [City Manager] with problems and have never trashed you," Mills wrote. "Having a working relationship and collaboration between the departments is a two-way street. The relationship gets strained when you run to CM or to council."

In order to equip the city with more tools to address the issue, and possibly to prod EPD into issuing more citations, Sparks prepared an "open space property management plan," an ordinance explicitly stating that camping, loose dogs and building materials such as pallets were not allowed. Besides authorizing the Focus Strategies report, this ordinance would mark one of the city's only attempts, after a year of deferring responsibility to staff, to have the council determine the city's approach to the marsh.

"I think it is critical that council approve this written policy," Sparks wrote in an email to Ciarabellini. "It then becomes the 'Council's Plan,' rather than having the council react to Andy's departmental policies and Miles's cleanup efforts. It will be important to have community support for this at the meeting."

To this end, Rob Holmlund, the city's community development director, emailed several constituents who had expressed frustration with the local homeless population and encouraged them to attend the meeting and weigh in on the issue. The Sept. 1 council meeting was one of the most contentious of the year, with passionate debate on all sides during a public comment period that stretched the meeting until 11 p.m. Signs were waved, and comparisons to Nazi Germany drew simultaneous rounds of applause and boos. The council tabled the plan.

A couple hours later, Ciarabellini fired off an email to Phillip Crandall — the head of the county Department of Health and Human Services, who'd just returned from vacation — at 12:49 a.m.

"Welcome home Phil, to the land of put-your-tent-anywhere-and-we-couldn't-care-less. I'm so pissed I can't sleep," she wrote. "They were confusing our mandate to maintain our city property with solving the homeless problem ... I don't know where this is going, but it's not good."

Crandall's reply was noncommittal. In a Sept. 28 email from Holmlund to Sparks and Mills, Holmlund gave his official opinion that the city "has no resources to solve homelessness and we never will." Suggested solutions to the gap between the number of people without homes and open beds in local shelters — a tiny house village, a tent city — were simply not economically or logistically feasible, he said.

"The responsibility for this problem needs to fall exclusively into the hands of the county," Holmlund wrote. "Accordingly, I recommend that we make an official city policy that the county is responsible for addressing homelessness. I know this will not be a satisfying answer, but ... the city has nothing to offer other than handcuffs for criminals."

In the meantime, down in the marsh a series of stabbings and an apparent homicide prompted EPD to begin condensing camps into a smaller space. Officers drew a chalk line on the gravel path adjacent to the rusting train tracks and ordered people camping south of it to move north, closer to Del Norte Street. This smaller area was billed as a "low-enforcement zone," separating the compliant from the non-compliant, although there was concern from both advocates and people camping there that it would disrupt established communities. Some people felt safer in the outlying areas of the camp, close to the Hikshari' Trail, and referred to the row of tents next to the tracks as "Heroin Alley."

October 2015: Defending 'Open Space'

The recently restored PalCo Marsh. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • The recently restored PalCo Marsh.

On Oct. 14, 2015, Sparks emailed department heads to announce that state Sen. Mike McGuire had expressed interest in "helping solve our encampment issues" by helping to get "funding for environmental restoration in the waterfront open space." To accomplish that, Sparks continued, McGuire would like "the city council on record as supporting that objective." To this end, Sparks prepared a revised Open Space Property Management Plan, which — thanks partially to a desire expressed by Councilmember Kim Bergel to set a definitive end date and the support of constituents contacted by Councilmember Marian Brady — passed the next week.

The new plan did little to ease tensions between city employees, however, as exemplified by yet another exchange between Slattery and Mills on Oct. 29, in which Slattery accused the police chief of not being supportive of his staff's safety concerns.

"There is a sense of ownership and entitlement for those in the area," wrote Slattery. "Especially the delusional tweakers who seem to think they own their plots. This is what's causing the problem because when staff enter their property, they feel they have the right to protect their property."

Mills responded that both he and his staff had been out there often and that he was sympathetic to the challenges, but had to prioritize calls for service. He offered to send an undercover officer along with Parks and Recreation staff and "if there is a crime, hook em right then to send a message." Slattery was unimpressed, saying the situation was "extremely frustrating."

"Do not take my willingness to work with you as weakness," Mills shot back. "EPD is also busting its ass ... you criticize the 'pigs' and mustaches and think P&R is underfunded and carrying all the water. ... If you want my support you got it. If you want to pick a fight over this ... bust out the boxing gloves."

January 2016 - March 2016: A Deadline Looms

Officers prepare to enter the marsh on May 2, 2016. - FILE
  • File
  • Officers prepare to enter the marsh on May 2, 2016.

By January, tensions were flaring across all levels of city government, with Councilmember Linda Atkins visibly losing her temper in a Jan. 5 meeting and accusing staff of being unresponsive to her requests to agendize a shelter crisis declaration. While the declaration, as eventually approved later that month, would not exactly bring to bear the dreaded "sanctioned camp," it did create a new set of tools for the city by relaxing some zoning restrictions for emergency shelters.

The shelter crisis and the accompanying specter of a potential sanctuary camp was unwelcome news to Slattery, who on Jan. 15 received an email from a major grant funder, the state Coastal Conservancy, indicating it would like a "better idea of where the city of Eureka is heading with regards to the homeless issues" before it committed to funding a portion of the Waterfront Trail through the PalCo Marsh. Reports had been coming in that people felt uncomfortable on the Hikshari', and the conservancy was "reluctant" to fund future segments of trail that the public would be reluctant to use because of homeless people. Slattery's very long reply suggested that the anecdotal reports the conservancy had heard were "unfounded" and that the city was being "proactive" about eliminating encampments while preparing to complete the trail.

In a later email to EPD Capt. Steve Watson, Mills and Sparks, Slattery was blunt.

"The writing is on the wall, as within a couple months this will be a construction area," he wrote. "It will need to be a zero tolerance zone whether we like it or not. The alternative is to relinquish 1.5 million dollars in construction funding. If that is the direction we intend to go in, then please let me know. I will need to notify the funding and regulatory agencies."

Rumors of a potential temporary camp would also endanger the fragile alliance between the city of Eureka and the county, whose board of supervisors and city council would meet for a historic joint session in January to discuss implementation of the Focus Strategies plan. Supervisor Ryan Sundberg raised it as a potential stumbling block during discussions, and made clear the PalCo Marsh was a Eureka problem. Holmlund said the city had not allocated any funds toward a sanctioned camp, which would have violated Focus Strategies' recommendations. In a March 6 email to Bergel, Slattery attempted to dissuade her from revisiting the sanctuary camp idea, saying it would just be "kicking the can down the road."

The city and county would go on to pass a joint resolution to collaborate on a Housing First strategy. In the meantime, Mills would reach out to several different lawyers, locally and in other parts of the state, to seek opinions on whether a mass eviction would result in legal liability for the city. Slattery would apply for an award for his department's work providing recreational activities for homeless children.

March 22, 2016 - Present: An Exit Plan and Its Aftermath

Belongings blaze on the final day of the PalCo Marsh encampment. - FILE
  • File
  • Belongings blaze on the final day of the PalCo Marsh encampment.

On March 22, the city announced a definitive vacation date: May 2. It also began soliciting proposals from any entities interested in creating some sort of sanctioned camp for the soon-to-be displaced. It set the bar high: Interested parties would need a proven history of working with the population and hefty liability insurance, and the city was unwilling to contribute funds. This was in line with suggestions from city staff, including Mills, who wrote in an email to Sparks that he honestly didn't believe a nonprofit would step forward.

Mills added that he didn't think the city should be in the position "where we are kicking homeless people out for a trail" and that he feared a lawsuit if that were the case. But the city pushed forward.

On May 2, things went smoothly. Reporters and clergy milled about as police executed a tactical plan, visiting the remaining camps and standing by as people packed things into strollers and bike carts. Fumes from a trash fire wafted over the exodus. Some would go to rotating temporary sleeping areas established by the city in several local parking lots. Some would go to a village of converted shipping containers across from St. Vincent DePaul, a surprise development organized by Betty Chinn and the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights, and made possible by the shelter crisis declaration.

Slattery would spend several hours negotiating with Lloyd Parker, the last to leave the marsh, over an enormous cache of property Parker did not want to abandon. Rather than storing it, Slattery agreed to buy it, despite suspicions that some of the stuff was actually stolen city property. Parker wanted $3,000 for the lot, Slattery bargained him down to $900, then sent much of it to a scrap metal recycler.

Despite his extensive efforts to avoid litigation, Mills would be the sole city representative named in the federal lawsuit filed by attorney Peter Martin on behalf of the PalCo Marsh campers, which remains pending. In his one-year retrospective interview, Slattery said he found this unfair.

"EPD's been solid," he said, adding he had "nothing but respect" for Mills. "Andy is very compassionate."

Slattery said the amount of blame heaped on Eureka for the homeless problem is also unfair. Homeless camps are a fact of life in all parts of the county, and Eureka had done the most, by far, he said, to offer services to the destitute. Yet it's the one getting sued.

Cyclists enjoying the new trail. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Cyclists enjoying the new trail.

As feared by many, a spike in crime and calls for police service in other parts of the city, including Old Town and the area around St. Vincent DePaul, followed the marsh evictions. The downtown homeless population would increase. Between March and April of 2016, EPD logged 56 total calls for service in the eight blocks around St. Vincent DePaul, where business owners now complain of many people camping, loitering and urinating. In the same time period for 2017, EPD fielded 95 such calls, a 70 percent increase. Shoplifting reports at the Bayshore Mall, however, have halved. Business owners in the St. Vincent DePaul area called a meeting last month to complain about an increase in theft, vandalism and camping. Once again, there are rumors of a lawsuit.

In August, the city, in collaboration with the county, launched a plan to house 30 people in 60 days, the first goal of their Housing First program. They met their deadline a month early, and have yet to announce a new goal.

Graffiti left after an eviction anniversary barbecue on May 2, 2017. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Graffiti left after an eviction anniversary barbecue on May 2, 2017.

One year after the eviction, following a severe winter, it would be hard to imagine how anyone could have lived in many areas of the marsh, which, thanks to reconstructive work, have filled with water. There are still remains of campfires, the odd tarp and broken bike, evidence that there are still people living there. On the one-year anniversary of the eviction, Bergel attended an informal barbecue hosted by previous "Devil's Playground" dwellers. According to Slattery, some city staff were also invited but didn't attend.

Next to the new trail, which is graveled with concrete from the crushed lumber kilns, another interpretive sign had been graffitied.

"Always our playground," it said.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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