Representing Humboldt County were Sheriff Mike Downey, Garberville Substation Sergeant Ken Swithenbank, Public Works Director Tom Matson, Associate Engineer and Land Use Division representative Robert Bronkall, and 2nd District Supervisor Clif Clendenen.
The guest speaker was Jim Truitt from Veterans for Peace who is hoping to take over the maintenance and operation of the Jim DeMulling Veterans Grove. Currently, the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Garberville holds the permit for the area.
Truitt said they want to open the park to the public and Vets for Peace does not advocate it to be a hangout for the homeless. The Veterans for Peace Park Committee submitted a beginning model to Bronkall in June.
Although the area is owned by the county the VFW took on the responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep for many years. Due to vandalism, problems with transients, and a lack of funds, the VFW has decided to give up that responsibility and is in the process of terminating that permit with the county.
Matson wanted to make it perfectly clear that the area is not a park, but a right-of-way for Redwood Drive that the county has allowed the veterans to use over the years.
Bronkall said the only agreement on file at the moment is between the VFW and the county, but they have received a request for termination and he is in the process of moving that paperwork forward. Because the agreement states the area must be returned to its original state, the VFW is looking to donate certain improvements like the flagpole, roses, etc. to the county.
Matson said the chamber and Vets for Peace may apply for a permit on a short-term basis until a formal 10-year permit can be issued by the county. But, he would like to have the majority of the community in support of this project before that is accepted. He said certain county codes and ordinances would apply. Recently a private citizen provided a port-a-potty on the site, but the county required it be removed because it was not permitted.
Bronkall added that state laws can be applicable along with the county codes especially when it comes to vagrancy and trespassing.
Sheriff's Deputy Steve Quenell said one of the problems has been that law enforcement moves the homeless out of camps, many which are located on private property, and they simply come in to town. Then business owners and citizens complain they are hanging around town sitting on sidewalks. It seems to be a no-win situation at this time and no matter what happens with the Veterans Grove all communities will have to deal with more and more transient and homeless issues.
Truitt said that currently the area is under no one's governance and that is part of the problem. He said the VFW ran out of money and became overwhelmed with the problems occurring there. Vets for Peace wants to help improve the area for residents and tourists to enjoy. He said there are many possibilities to make it a more attractive and usable space including the possibility of installing surveillance cameras with video, sound and lights. He said the first step might be the use of signs to let those using the area know the rules. This would also give law enforcement better tools in dealing with those who refuse to follow those rules and cause problems.
The VFW had turned off the water when the faucet was broken off and installed orange fencing around it to prevent any more vandalism. There was also a problem with human and dog waste, which created a health problem. In the past few months the fencing was taken down and the Garberville Sanitary District repaired the water system and waived the reconnect fee so that the roses and other plants can be watered. They also installed a lock on the valve to prevent vandalism and improper use.
Truitt said dealing with the transient/homeless situation in not only a problem in the grove. If you move them out of that area they will just move down the street and onto the sidewalks in front of businesses.
He said, “This problem is not going to go away. It's in our face.”
He said the Vets for Peace would like to form a team to help maintain the area but will need the community's support to do so.
President Brodersen said the Chamber had recently held a meeting at the Mateel Community Center with John Shelter from New Directions. Shelter's program in Eureka has been very successful in finding ways to improve the living conditions for those who are without homes or who are seeking employment.
Deputy Steve Quenell said in the past, deputies had gone into the homeless camps and offered the people there help using the Transportation Assistance Program (TAP). This program pays for people to go home to their families, as long as those families are willing to take them in. The necessary assistance services here in Southern Humboldt are few and far between and this probably won't improve in the near future due to budget cuts. Quenell said no one had taken them up on the offers of help.
Local resident John Casali from the Eel River Cleanup Crew said in three years he and his group have removed 300,000 pounds of trash and toxic waste off the river bar. He said they have had $125,000 in donations to help with the dump fees, but has spent much of his own money and donated countless hours cleaning up these camps. Casali hires the camp residents to help him in many cases. He said out of 14 people working for him, nine of those are from out of California.
He said, “Why can't they respect the town they live in? Why can't they just respect us?”
A local business person, who also lives in town, said that people are defecating and urinating not only in front of his business on a regular basis, but also on the front porch of his home. He said he used to let people use his bathroom in his business but had to stop doing that due to the lack of respect for his property. The Garberville Post Office recently found that someone had defecated on the back of one of the mail trucks.
With regard to the use of this right-of-way Matson said these problems have caused divisive issues in the community and we'd like the community to come together to work it out. He also said the county is broke and his department cannot provide any funds for improvements to the property. Although he did say there might be a very small amount available for signs.
Garberville substation Sergeant Ken Swithenbank said it is not uncommon for his deputies to spend half of each day on transient and homeless issues in both Garberville and Redway.
Board member Blake Lehman said there is a definite distinction between homeless and transient. A transient is described as a person who is a temporary guest, boarder, laborer, or the like. A homeless person is someone who is lacking permanent housing.
Lehman said, “It's not our responsibility to take care of someone who has a backpack on out to see the country. I've lived here almost my whole life and this town has never looked so bad. Enabling people to stay here is not the solution.”
Board member Greg Pfau said this is the gateway to our town coming from the north. He was willing to consider the need for a bathroom in town and said that if the town square group wants to build a bathroom, the community should get behind them and make it happen.
Sheriff Downey said that although the town square was not represented at the meeting, he said they had a transient problem and with the help of businesses around the square and the local deputies the transients had been asked to move on. He said a bathroom at this location could bring the problem back and that maintenance of bathrooms is always a problem.
Local resident Sonia Baur kept asking why the county couldn't give Southern Humboldt $65,000 to build a bathroom here. She said she lives here and can't find a restroom to use when she is downtown.
Matson repeated himself by stating the county doesn't have money even for standard maintenance of the current infrastructure. He said bathroom vandalism has become a big expense for the county especially at the more remote county owned parks and properties. He said for some reason people love to tear up bathrooms and unmanaged parks are a problem.
A citizen in the audience used Tooby Park as a good example of what can be done with the right resources. He said when Tooby Park was abandoned by the county and later the Garberville Rotary Club, the Southern Humboldt Community Park supporters took it on. With a lot of work and various fundraising efforts it is now a place where families can go and children can play safely on a great playground. One important part of this success is the full-time caretaker who lives on site and does such a good job of maintaining the park.
Southern Humboldt Builders Service owner Ron Olsen said when the orange fence was put up he had fewer problems than he does now. Currently, there is a large group hanging out all day at the grove and he has had a rise in shoplifting. Olsen also said he has had customers say they are now driving to Redway because they don't want to drive down by the grove to come to his store.
When asked if a more permanent fence could be put up around the property Matson responded by saying, “It is not illegal to fence a county right-of-way.”
Local resident Estelle Fennell said that perhaps the installation and use of floodlights at night and trimming back the vegetation even more would help and make it less attractive to the transients. She said she has seen maps being handed around by visitors indicating whether or not a town was “transient friendly” and if there was a public bathroom.
Fennell asked, “Do we want to become a transient destination?”
The general consensus was that we need to take care of our own homeless and those who live here and are in need of assistance. There are battered women and children at WISH who are in need of financial help and other local families who are living in their vehicles. As a community we should take care of our own first.
At the end of the discussion it was recommended that a sub-committee be formed first with community members and members of Veterans for Peace to try find a course of action. Truitt said it sounded like a good idea to him but that we would have to go back to his group for approval. Among those who agreed to be on the committee were Jim Truitt, Estelle Fennell, Ron Olsen, Kathy Epling, Mark Bryant, and Linda Brodersen.
A meeting date for this committee will be set at a later date. If you are interested in participating, contact the chamber office at 923-2613 or email email@example.com. For a printout of the Veterans for Peace draft proposal for the park, contact Jim Truitt at 923-5229 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY SUSAN GARDNER
Humboldt County staff, including, from left to right, Robert Bronkall, Tom Matson, Supervisor Clif Clendenen, and Sheriff Mike Downey (standing) attended the Chamber of Commerce meeting last Wednesday. Jim Truitt, right, was the guest speaker. Also, shown is Cynthia Elkins, from KMUD, who recorded the meeting.