Homeless meeting raises strong emotions, greatest needs -- sanitation, shelter, respect

The second community meeting to address homeless and transient population issues concluded with a promise to continue the conversation, possibly in smaller working groups, after nearly breaking down into chaos several times.

Feelings ran high among the 100-plus persons at last Friday night's gathering, a follow-up to the community meeting of Oct. 7, organized by activist Paul Encimer and Eel River Clean Up founder John Casali.

Facilitator Eric Kirk strove to maintain order, at one point calling for an end to the meeting as people throughout the room shouted angrily at each other. But ultimately the crowd settled down enough to continue. The meeting went on until well past the scheduled closing time at 8 p.m.

"I'm doing these meetings and I'm not giving up. You can't scare me," said Encimer at the end. He announced that the group has the use of the Vets Hall every Friday night. The next large public meeting is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 19.

The evening began with Casali's announcement that he is ceasing his involvement with the Eel River cleanup. At the Oct. 7 meeting he said, after hearing advocacy for self-policing by the homeless, that he would suspend the clean-up for two weeks and then take pictures of the results at several sites.

Casali spent $3,700 cleaning up the area after the Oct. 7 meeting. He then presented pictures that showed trash and feces that he has collected since he cleaned it up. "Nobody in the world is allowed to do this," he declared, adding, "I will never pick up one more bag of garbage."

Encimer said that he was organizing people to pick up trash and sort out the recyclables. "I've taken inspiration from John," he said.

Persons volunteering for the cleanup will receive buttons identifying them as "community volunteers."

Following these announcements, Kirk read a list of perceived problems and solutions developed from the previous meeting.

The problems included lack of respect, safety, drugs and alcohol, trash, feces, strain on local resources, lack of housing and public space, and panhandling.

Some proposed solutions that emerged from the previous meeting were giving and getting respect and compassion, neighborhood watch, self-regulation, developing a code of conduct, security patrols modeled on festival security, public restrooms, campgrounds and shelters, networking, sharing, bartering, and community script or tokens; offering information on resources to panhandlers rather than money.

Then speakers were called on from a sign-up list to continue the discussion.

Two of the business owners who had complained about problems at their locations said that they had seen improvement since the last meeting. One Redway business owner said she had seen a big change for the better. She thanked "whoever helped out" and said that she was "cautiously optimistic," adding that some of this might be due to the time of year. "The main drifters may have drifted on," she said.

Another business employee said that a homeless man who had spoken at the previous meeting came to sweep the area in front of the Garberville business. However, he only showed up for two days.

Other businesspersons, however, still found plenty of problems. Several complained that the mess, trash, and people and dogs hanging out on the sidewalks intimidated tourists to the detriment of their businesses. "Tourists are the lifeblood of my business," one shop owner said.

Real estate appraiser Blake Lehman used stronger terms, calling Garberville in its present state a "dump." He will have to gate the alley behind his business to keep transients out. "I can't let my kids play on property their grandparents bought," he said.

Another businessperson said she doesn't think she should have to constantly say, "excuse me" to walk down the sidewalk when it is being blocked by a group of people and their dogs. And then when she does walk by she is harassed and asked for money. She said she saw an elderly woman pulling an oxygen tank who had to walk into the street to pass by one of these groups. Another person said, sidewalks are for walking, not sitting and standing around blocking doorways to businesses.

On the other hand, the homeless and their advocates pointed out that sanitation is a basic human necessity, and if there are no facilities, people do what they can. Several pointed out that there used to be many more services in the area, including shelters, open spaces where people were not harassed, churches and other organizations that offered help.

The lack of public space and public bathrooms also impacts tourism, several people pointed out. For example, touring cyclists have no place to safely park their bikes, use a bathroom, or even sit down in a shady spot in Garberville.

The need for public sanitation continued to take the forefront in discussions of solutions, with almost everyone calling for, at minimum, a few porta-potties as their first priority.

Self-regulation emerged as the key point of conflict in the discussion.

A homeless man who identified himself as Lost Dog, who said he was born and raised in Leggett, stated that the homeless can take care of themselves better than the authorities.

"Get the outsiders out," he said, adding that the local homeless, who know how to get along in the community, can make sure those who cause trouble leave the area. Many people echoed this statement and asked for the opportunity to regulate themselves.

But others were skeptical of this approach, and some of the apparently transient population seemed angry they were being painted with a broad brush by the local homeless.

More people than not seemed to agree that setting up a clear code of conduct, possibly by posting signs at key locations stating the "rules," would help. Travelers would then know what was being asked of them and could either agree, move on, or be pressured to leave by the locals.

Someone passed around copies of the Hobo Ethical Code, which was created at the National Hobo Convention in St. Louis, Mo., in 1889. The code includes such points as: "When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times... Always try to find work, if only temporary... Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos... Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling [camping]... Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals treatments of other hobos."

Arguments broke out several times when speakers lost control of their anger and made disparaging personal remarks. In spite of many calls for respect, compassion, and the need to address issues rather than point fingers at individuals, chaos threatened on a number of occasions.

When Deborah Carey, who had used her birthday money to obtain a porta-potty for the Jim DeMulling Veterans Grove, accused Sheriff Mike Downey, sitting in the front row, of being responsible for its removal, Kirk asked her to desist, which infuriated the crowd.

Amid deafening shouts and accusations from all sides, Kirk attempted to close the meeting, on the grounds they were not making progress. Someone shouted, "People talking is progress."

"People shouting is not progress," Kirk replied. "This meeting is over."

"This meeting is not over," shouted the speaker.

Many people walked out, but many stayed, many of those from the transient or homeless community. Eventually those who remained calmed down and a discussion of solutions, including ways to conduct more constructive meetings, began. From the very beginning of the meeting, speakers were rudely interrupted by the same few people in the audience with some refusing to adhere to the three-minute time limit for speakers. Kirk did his best to allow everyone the opportunity to speak and encouraged them to keep their remarks respectful.

Encimer suggested breaking into smaller groups, each focused on a particular issue, such as security, trash and feces, housing and resources, and building respect. The majority of people remaining seemed to agree that smaller groups might work more effectively.

In spite of many calls for respect, compassion, and solution-oriented discussion, arguments continued to break out from time to time. At one point two men engaged in this dialog, typical of shaky moments in the meeting:

"We were talking about solutions, can we keep it there?"

"I was trying to do that."

"No, you weren't."

"Yes, I was."

But nevertheless, the meeting continued for over an hour, reaffirming that the greatest practical needs are first, some sort of public sanitary facilities, and second, both an emergency shelter for winter weather and a campground, preferably cleaned and kept safe by its occupants.

Several people suggested that when and if the state decides to shut down Benbow State Recreation Area, a non-profit organization in the community could take it over to provide a community campground.

At least one person objected to the campground idea, however, comparing the idea to a Nazi concentration camp.

Additionally, many people on all sides of the issue continued to call for respect and an end to harassment of both the homeless and the business community.

Encimer asked anyone interested in helping prepare for the Nov. 19 meeting to get together with him on Friday, Nov. 4. He can be reached at the Tiger Lily Bookstore in Garberville, 923-4488.

photo caption:


Eel River Clean Up founder John Casali shows photos of the area he recently cleaned up that is already covered with trash and human and animal waste.