County, Eureka Diverge on Reducing Homelessness

The City of Eureka and Humboldt are jointly considering a new homelessness reduction plan but the city’s strategies veer away from the plan’s recommendations.

The vexing issue of addressing homelessness was explored in a first-ever joint meeting of the Eureka City Council and the county’s Board of Supervisors on Jan. 26. Held in the packed board chambers, the meeting showcased a final report from Focus Strategies, a Sacramento-based firm that exclusively works on plans to help communities reduce homelessness.

The firm’s main recommendation is to direct effort and resources at a “housing first” approach that immediately places people in rental units or supportive housing, followed by case management services.

Megan Kurteff Schatz, the firm’s principal, said the housing first approach is based on “the whole system being oriented to offering housing,” a significant change.

It’s an approach that diverges from the push for emergency shelter that led to the Eureka Council’s approval of a shelter crisis declaration the week before. County Supervisor Ryan Sundberg noted that the county has rejected calls to approve a crisis declaration and it’s an action that isn’t recommended in the new plan.

Schatz said focusing on emergency shelters or tent villages saps energy from what really needs to be done.

“If your objective as a community is to reduce homelessness, then spending a lot of time and resources on trying to provide more shelter in the hopes that your unsheltered population will come inside is likely to be a distraction from the solutions, which are to provide housing,” she continued.

Crisis response through opening shelters is “where we really started in the ’80s,” said Schatz, adding that data has shown that what actually works is “providing pathways to housing for people.”

Later, she added that although the housing market seems tight, there are probably several hundreds of rental units that could take in homeless people.

Eureka Councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini — who was among the minority of Eureka councilmembers voting against the shelter crisis declaration — noted that the plan’s recommendations prioritize the involvement of landlords.

Schatz said developing incentives and working relationships with landlords should be “right near the top of the list” of things to do. The plan recommends organization of a “housing summit” and training sessions where county and city staff members would be coached on how to negotiate rentals.

An impediment to both emergency shelter and conventional housing is dog ownership. Asked about that by Eureka Councilmember Kim Bergel, Schatz said some communities have set up kennels and negotiating with landlords is key.

But during a public comment session, several speakers involved in the crisis response approach expressed doubt about the plan’s focus on permanent housing.

Some said implementation of the plan will take time and emergency shelter is needed now.

Eureka Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said her city is in a “unique situation” with the encampments at the Palco Marsh behind the Bayshore Mall, which are slated to be cleared out this spring.

The city’s shelter crisis declaration calls for using city properties as emergency shelters, and Sundberg said the county and the city seem to be pursuing contrasting goals.

“I’m just feeling like there’s a huge communication gap here,” he continued. “How do we bridge that gap and do this together? Because I don’t see it happening here.”

Schatz responded by saying that the county and the city need to combine resources to be effective. She said the initial step would be for each government to endorse the plan and commit to its implementation.

“The only real way to go in different directions is to start spending money on things that aren’t in the plan,” she added.

In separate actions, the city council and the Board of Supervisors voted to receive the report and discuss it further at their next meetings.