The Ripple Effect

Once homeless, once an addict, Kathy Anderson believes her lawsuit may forever change Eureka.



A rat scurried into the open, sniffed the charred remnants of some tin cans in a burn pile, then darted back into the bushes. The sunlight filtered through the branches of young, spindly trees to illuminate a sea of trash: broken bottles, plastic cups, strips of tarp, scraps of plastic and paper and discarded clothing strewn across the landscape. Nearby, the concrete remnants of an old lumber kiln sat awash in colorful graffiti.

The area behind the Bayshore Mall, commonly known as the Devil's Playground, has been largely scrubbed of the scores of homeless camps that peppered it a few months ago. The emptiness is the result of the Eureka Police Department's efforts to push campers to the northern part of the green belt, where they'll be closer to services and further away from the old kiln, which a recent court case rendered a massive liability concern.

A couple of miles away, on the outskirts of Eureka, south of Harris Street, sits a fairly typical residential property. There's modest single-story home surrounded on all four sides by yard on an oversized city lot. Christened "Follain" — an Irish word meaning healthy, fit, sound, hearty and wholesome — by its new owner, the property is undergoing something of a makeover. The interior has been remodeled for a more open floor plan to accommodate a stream of anticipated visitors. A vegetable garden has been planted to the east of the house, and a large workspace has been cleared to the west, where a pile of reclaimed lumber has already started to grow.

Though disparate in form and function, these two Eureka properties are intrinsically linked, connected by a woman in her mid 60s, a fall, a lawsuit and a city's entrenched homeless population.

It was in the mid-afternoon of July 19, 2011, and Kathy Anderson was looking to help a couple of people she'd just met. They were new to town, and had no place to stay. Anderson, a local homeless advocate, already had some folks sleeping at her apartment — on the floor, in a car parked in the driveway and in some tents pitched in the backyard — and had no room to add anyone to the fold. Her landlord had already warned her she was on thin ice. But she wanted to help these people find a safe place to spend the night, so she brought them down to the PalCo Marsh area behind the mall.

Anderson thought the concrete loading docks on the old lumber kiln might make a good spot — sheltered from the elements and relatively secure. There were some other people around; some were spray painting the walls while others were there taking refuge, sleeping in tents and under tarps. While walking through one of the kiln's old loading docks — semi-enclosed concrete bays littered with large holes in the ground — Anderson tripped on a piece of protruding rebar and got her foot stuck in one of the holes, which sent her falling forward, crashing down on the cement. She broke her shoulder and smashed her head.

As Anderson lay in the hospital recovering from shoulder replacement surgery, she began to come to grips with the impacts of the fall. She would never regain a full range of motion in her shoulder, never be able to give a proper two-armed hug again, and she would grapple with constant pain. She says she also lost her sense of smell due to the head injury she suffered. As cooking was her passion — she even did it professionally for a stint — this was a horrible blow. The more Anderson thought about the injuries and the two decades she'd spent asking the city to create a sanctuary campground for the homeless, she said, the madder she got. "I just thought, if the city had listened all these years this wouldn't have happened. They need to be held accountable.'"

As soon as she was feeling up to it, Anderson began looking for a lawyer. After a couple of phone calls, she was referred to Patrik Griego, who'd recently won a string of awards, most notably 2011's Trial Lawyer of the Year award from Public Justice for his work on a massive class action lawsuit brought against a nursing home chain. Griego said he was immediately interested in Anderson's case.

They filed suit against the city in 2012, seeking unlimited damages and arguing that the city had essentially let the Devil's Playground become an attractive nuisance, a dangerous property that by its nature invites people to use it, much like a run-down, abandoned building that draws vagrants and crime. The city had failed to maintain its property, or even warn people about the danger of the dilapidated structure, and Anderson had been hurt as a result, Griego argued.

Local attorney Nancy Delaney represented the city at trial and argued that Anderson, whom she described as a "self-styled" homeless advocate, never should have been trying to help a people violate city law and camp illegally on the property in the first place. Further, Delaney argued, city officials simply didn't know that people frequented the graffiti-covered, old concrete kiln. That argument still riles Anderson: "They're liars! They lie," she said, her voice raising, when the topic came up. The argument backfired, according to Griego, who solicited testimony from former Eureka Police Chief Murl Harpham, another officer on the force and local homeless advocate John Shelter, indicating that they had all seen people on, in and around the structure, doing everything from sleeping and painting to bird watching and just hanging out.

Jurors initially deadlocked on the subject of liability in the case, with eight feeling the city was 100-percent liable and four believing Anderson shared at least a portion of the blame. Fearing a mistrial, Griego said he wound up arguing to the eight jurors on his side that his client was partially at fault, saying: "You don't fall into a hole unless you've done something wrong." Ultimately the jury agreed, finding the city 70 percent liable. When the case entered the damages phase, Griego entered mediated settlement talks with Redwood Empire Municipal Insurance Fund, which essentially acts as the city's insurance carrier.

But at this point, years had passed since Anderson filed the suit. She said she'd initially hoped to get more than $1 million in the case, money she hoped to turn around and use to buy a large, vacant property somewhere in town and start a tiny-house village for homeless people, akin to villages in Eugene and Portland, Oregon. But in the four years that the case had worked through the courts, Anderson's circumstances had changed. Her son, Josh, had become addicted to methamphetamine, lost his home and was living in the bushes around the Devil's Playground. She had to get him out of there, had to find someplace where they could live together, she said.

Anderson gave Griego the green light to settle, and he negotiated a $400,000 payout. "I settled to save my son," she said.

Born and raised in the Sacramento area, Kathy Anderson ran away from what she called "an abusive home" as a teenager. It was 1965 and she was a 16-year-old "flower child" at the time, so she made her way to San Francisco, where she found a community with the homeless hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district. "It was an incredible education, living on the fringes of society," she said recently, sitting in the front room of Follain.

To hear Anderson tell it, it was also a darn good time. There were free health clinics, free clothing giveaways, free meal services and free educational classes, she said. She attended regular "rap sessions," where folks talked politics and philosophy. In the few years living on the streets of San Francisco, Anderson said she never felt unsafe, didn't want for anything and was generally nurtured by a community built on "peace and love."

One Sunday afternoon in 1968, she was panhandling at the Greyhound bus depot in San Francisco when she met Gene Anderson, who'd grown up in Orick and was returning from leave to the Alameda Naval base, where he was stationed. The two talked for hours, until Gene had to take the last bus back to the base. "He wanted to see me again," Anderson said, adding that she didn't have a phone number or fixed address at the time, no way in which he could get in touch with her. He urged her to go back home so he could find her when his stint with the Navy was up, and she did. "The connection was just so strong," she said, adding that Gene came calling months later as soon as he left the Navy. The two quickly relocated to Humboldt County.

In the ensuing years, the Andersons had four children, but Gene had left his service in the Navy addicted to methamphetamine and both she and he struggled to kick the habit. Kathy said Gene spent about 10 of the 15 years they were married in prison on a variety of drug offenses, in addition to a couple of stints for domestic violence. "There are four major penitentiaries in California and he went to all of them because he was an addict," Kathy said. "It was the punishment model of addiction treatment." Kathy said she cleaned up in 1977, but Gene never could. In 1986, Gene was serving eight months in the California Men's Colony, a minimum security prison in San Luis Obispo, for a parole violation. While there, it was discovered he needed a triple bypass surgery, Kathy said, but he was refused an operation at the prison hospital because he was a short-timer. "They let him out with a bottle of nitroglycerine in his pocket," Kathy said. On the drive back up to Humboldt County, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 38.

Kathy, now raising four kids ages 6 to 13 alone, went back to college, wanting to find a career that could help support her family. She studied computer programing but took a few chemical dependency classes on the side, wanting to understand what had happened to Gene and her family. In the early 1990s, Kathy began working with homeless people at the Arcata Food Endeavor, which, back then, was an all-donation driven food bank. This soon blossomed into another job as the director of Arcata House, which ran some transitional housing and a night shelter.

She loved the work and cherished helping people, she said. But she had little patience for bureaucracy, politics or government in general. She balked at the tighter rules and restrictions that would come with the agencies' seeking federal and state grants, and refused to put clients' names in a database, fearing it would allow police to run warrant checks. "I'm not one of those people that believes if you have a warrant and are starving that I shouldn't feed you," she said. "I don't care who you are. If you're starving, I'm going to give you food; if you're naked, I'm going to give you clothes; if you're thirsty, I'm going to give you water. But that's not how government works."

Anderson said she was also loudly outspoken about the need for the city and the county to create a sanctioned campground for the homeless. She called a local official a liar on KHSU in the mid 1990s when discussing the entrenched homeless encampment on the South Jetty, noting officials were dispersing the camp when there wasn't enough shelter space and affordable housing to accommodate the people there. Her personal life was also in turmoil, as she'd taken up with a boyfriend who beat her, she said. One day he broke her jaw, which had to be wired shut. Her productivity at work plummeted and within six months, she said, she was fired. It sent her into a dark place. "The whole thing just discouraged me horribly, and I started drinking too much," she said, adding that it would be some years before she was able to put the bottle down and reclaim her life. "I had to get myself healthy again so I could start helping others."

When she got back on her feet, Anderson helped found the People Project, a local group dedicated to homeless and social justice issues, and began serving a twice-weekly breakfast on Fairfield Street. She's also worked intermittently. She was on the housekeeping staff at Carter House, spent a summer cooking for the staff at Yellowstone National Park and held a job at the Multiple Assistance Center for about a year, she said. But she and the MAC soon soured on each other and she was fired, she said, because she pushed back against some of the rules, refusing to write people up for smoking marijuana or showing up late to a meeting.

And all the while, she had a steady stream of folks staying at her house, from down-on-their-luck travelers just passing through to chronically homeless people who needed shelter from the elements to fight off a cold or some other malady. She regularly had folks camping in her apartment's backyard, or sleeping in cars in her driveway. There was some friction with her landlord, she said, which is why, when two more people showed up in July of 2011, she said she had to find them someplace else to stay and headed down to the Devil's Playground.

Standing in the yard of her new property, her short brown hair parted neatly to the left and a pair of glasses perched above her rosy cheeks, Anderson said her lawsuit was never really about money. It was about creating the space to try something different.

As her son Josh mowed the lawn nearby, Anderson shared her vision. Follain is designed to be a kind of informal day center, a place where folks can come by and grab a meal — she serves two daily — and a shower. There are laundry facilities and an Internet connection. People can come stay for a while, she said, as long as they put in some work, whether household chores, tending the garden or helping in the kitchen. "No idle hands," she said. "Work is a very important part of this." There are a few other rules, too, though Anderson doesn't like to call them that, preferring to say she reaches a simple agreement with her guests. There's no "drinking and drugging" allowed on the property, and folks have to be nonviolent and respectful.

But Anderson's ambition goes way beyond giving folks a brief hand. She walked behind the small beige house to a pile of salvaged lumber next to a small open space. Here, she said, her son will teach the folks staying at Follain to build their own tiny houses, designed to their own tastes and specifications. (Her vision is to have a handful of guests at a time: someone in transition working on a house and a couple of "helpers" staying on a more long-term basis). Anderson said she will then rely on her network of contacts, as well as those of her guests, to find people willing to host a tiny home in their backyards so when construction is complete, her guest and the tiny home will move elsewhere, making space for a new guest and a new home project at Follain.

Meanwhile, the city is continuing to address the impacts of homelessness, working to clean out the Palco Marsh area, pushing campers north. While the city has denied that liability concerns are behind the effort to clear out the Devil's Playground, the timing of its launch aligns with Anderson's settlement. Anderson said some homeless advocates have approached her angrily, accusing her of lighting the fire that's spurred the city to aggressively target the marsh encampment. She said she understands the sentiment, but doesn't regret her lawsuit. Instead, she said, she feels hopeful.

While some may be tempted to paint Anderson with a single brush as a bleeding heart, liberal, left-leaning homeless advocate, they'd be wrong. Sitting in the living room of Follain, Anderson said enough to indicate her ideology is all over the map. She's a devout Seventh Day Adventist (has been for decades) and a bit of a conspiracy theorist. She's as prone to talk about the United Nations and the wealthy world elite working to steal American sovereignty as she is to criticize the the federal wars on poverty and drugs. When it comes to homelessness, she said it's the result of the breakdown of the American family and a series of failed "tough love" policies. Plus, she said, even in a perfect society there will be those who choose "to live a nomadic lifestyle. ... That's a choice we've been making for thousands of years."

But what Anderson said she knows for sure is that it's not going to be the feds or the state that come swooping in to "solve" the homeless problem. "It's not their job — it's our job: people, neighbors, cities," she said. "We need to help each other."

And, to that end, she hopes Follain provides a model for others to follow. "What I'm doing is small," she said. "But if you get everyone doing something small, all of a sudden you have something really big."

Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version to more accurately reflect the location of Kathy Anderson's property.

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