Humboldt County Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell recently toured numerous homeless camps throughout the Garberville area, responding to complaints from the community about problems associated with the homeless community in Southern Humboldt. Escorted by Deputy Tony Gomes and Sgt. Ken Swithenbank with the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, Fennell observed and photographed objectionable behavior among travelers passing through the area.
"I felt there was something I could do, and that was to at least become aware on a personal level," Fennel says, "to educate myself, get out there, and know what I'm talking about."
The first stop on their route was the Garberville cemetery, where they found travelers from Texas camped out with one man sleeping just a few feet from a grave. Fennell says they observed that individual get up and stand on that grave, then urinate onto another grave. A two-foot by two-foot pit-latrine filled with human excrement was near another grave -- though Supervisor Fennell says they chose not to photograph it.
"This was particularly disturbing for most of the people there," Fennell says.
Downtown, Supervisor Fennell found an RV that had been parked overnight in a red zone near the Branding Iron Saloon. The tail end of the vehicle was also blocking a crosswalk She says that the driver wasn't ticketed, but was advised to move his vehicle -- which he did after getting a jump-start.
At the area commonly known as "Hippie Hill," just south of Garberville they photographed heavily littered campsites, human feces that had not been buried, and fire-pits, which were in some cases just a few feet away from dry, heavy brush. This area was later vacated and crews from the Eel River Conservation Camp subsequently cleared out the brush, as reported by KMUD News on Wednesday, Sept. 18.
"There's campgrounds to the north of here, and there's campgrounds down south," Fennell says. "The bottom line is that all the areas on the edge of town are private property, state or county owned and you're trespassing no matter which one of them you're in. There just aren't campgrounds around town. And so the more that people are concerned about impact around town the more they're going to be asked not to camp there."
Fennell explains that she's also concerned about how the impacts of the traveler community may be adversely affecting what she calls the "local homeless."
"It's dangerous out there for some people. There's some that are more aggressive than others," she says. "Part of that has to do with hard drugs and drink."
Homelessness in Humboldt County is a long-standing controversy, but it's gotten more attention than usual in the recent weeks. Last Wednesday, Eureka businessman Rob Arkley Jr. held a forum to discuss the issue.
"Our County and City are being taken over by the homeless. It seems as though many of the policies being pursued by our county and city governments, and certain not-for-profits, actually encourage the homeless to come here and stay here..." Arkley writes in an email promoting the event. "I think that it is time for us to get together and see if we can build a consensus on how to deal with this issue. Specifically, I would like to know what policies and programs can be cut that will reduce the number of homeless."
When asked to respond to Arkley's statements, Fennel said she doesn't think the county can go in that direction because many of our programs are mandated by the state and federal government.
"We are mandated as a county to be there for those who fall between the cracks," Fennell says. "We must provide those services. But I think that we could look at the structures we provide and make it clear that those structures are there to help people who really need help, not to be abused by people who are counting on them for a free ride. That's the perception that a lot of people have."
"Is there abuse of the system? Let's find out. It's a fair question to ask," she says. "But we must provide those services for the community."
Regardless of Arkley's recent homelessness forum, Fennell believes that the people of Southern Humboldt can and should communicate their behavioral expectations through the broad network of travelers who pass through the Garberville\Redway area. That message will be communicated by word of mouth through the "bush telegraph," as she calls it.
"There are certain behaviors that are happening that have an impact on the quality of life in a rural area. I think the community has gotten to the stage where they want to make it clear that those behaviors are not acceptable. They're not saying you've gotta leave -- they're saying don't defecate in front of me and don't camp on my grandmother's grave. Things like that."
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SUPERVISOR ESTELLE FENNELL
1. Humboldt County Deputy Tony Gomes and Sgt. Ken Swithenbank took Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle around to some of the local homeless camps in the Garberville area.
2. A man is shown here standing on a gravesite and urinating. A pit filled with human excrement was near another gravesite.