Eureka’s criminalization of homeless is ‘counterproductive,’ grand jury report finds

Before Palco Marsh was evacuated there were 633 illegal camping citations; afterward it more than doubled

These maps of Eureka show the locations where homeless people were cited or arrested for illegal camping. A Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury report released Thursday found that the city of Eureka’s approach to homelessness, criminalizing it, is counterproductive and more costly than providing temporary housing. (Screenshots from Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury report)
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Eureka’s criminalization of homeless people is costing taxpayers more than it would to provide housing and it is also failing to reduce the number of unhoused people, a grand jury report found.

Ordinances passed by the Eureka City Council since 2012, such as ordinances against camping outside of designated areas and sitting or lying on a sidewalk in a commercial area, have been geared toward managing the homeless community rather than helping members of that community get housed, according to the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury report, “Les Miserables: The Criminalization of the Homeless in the City of Eureka,” released Thursday. The total number of homeless people that were counted in Eureka during a point-in-time count conducted annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development meanwhile rose from 513 in 2015 to 653 in 2019.

“Our investigation found use of law enforcement as a primary tool in dealing with homelessness is counterproductive,” a Humboldt County news release submitted by foreperson Joseph Kravitz stated. “In Eureka, evacuating encampments simply dispersed problems from a contained location to a wider area of the city. Citations and arrests of homeless have not resulted in reducing the overall number of unhoused people in Eureka.”

Most of those ordinances have to do with the homeless trying to live their daily lives, particularly sleeping, which is cited as illegal camping, the report found. Before the homeless encampment at Palco Marsh was dispersed in 2016, there were 633 incidents of illegal camping that resulted in citations or arrests. Afterward there were 1,363.

Continuing to cite or arrest the homeless for sleeping in public could land the city in trouble since the U.S. Justice Department warned against prosecuting the homeless for sleeping in public in 2015 because it violated the U.S. Constitution for being cruel and unusual. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also decided in September that it was cruel and unusual to prosecute people for sleeping in public when they had no other options.

The Eureka Police Department and members of the Eureka City Council were unavailable for comment by publication time.

Vernon Price, an advocate for the homeless, said he did a public records request that found “967 unhoused citizens were ticketed within 18 months.”

“That’s not right for any city or municipality,” Price said. “That is very counterproductive to addressing the root causes of homelessness.”

The longer it takes to address those root causes, the more likely a person is to develop a mindset associated with chronic homelessness, which is tougher to address, Price said. After being homeless for about two years, a person might have developed social anxiety, paranoia and mistrust because of how they’ve been treated.

On top of that, homeless people become an eyesore to the community during business hours, which starts to affect a person psychologically in terms of “how one is looked at,” Price said.

Though there is no local monetary comparison of how much more it costs to criminalize the homeless rather than house them, the report cited several studies that illustrate it is more cost-effective to provide housing. One of the studies cited — a 2013 report on homeless from Utah — found that emergency room visits and jail stays cost $16,670 on average for each homeless person while it only costs $11,000 to provide each person with a social worker and an apartment.

The report also cited the case of one homeless man who the city spent $13,400 prosecuting for illegal camping.

“Evidence indicates that criminalizing the human activities of the unhoused is far more costly than providing transitional and permanent housing and support services,” the grand jury wrote. “Creating more debt through fines and criminal records through arrests erects steeper barriers for the homeless in finding work and qualifying for housing in an ever-tightening rental market.”

A Eureka Police Department survey of 190 homeless people found 44% of respondents had experienced homelessness for three to 10 years, 57% of respondents had a mental illness and 71% indicated that they had drug or alcohol abuse problems.

“This does not paint a portrait of a population that would respond well to citation, arrests, and constantly being moved from place to place,” the report reads. “From our interviews with the homeless and people who work with the homeless, law enforcement efforts only create more exhaustion, mental anguish, and the need for drugs to mask those states.”

The report recommended that representatives from the Eureka City Council, the police department, homeless groups and the homeless community form a committee and review the ordinances that homeless people have no choice but to violate if they want to live their lives. It also recommended that the city stop enforcing those ordinances and start collaborating with the county to:

• Provide storage sites at strategic locations for the homeless to use;

• Provide additional public restrooms throughout the community and to extend existing facilities’ operating hours;

• Increase affordable housing;

• Develop a plan to set up and finance short-term shelters and transitional housing;

• Conduct meetings at least once a month to address homelessness.

The report recommended that Eureka specifically needed to find ways for the homeless to have citation fees reduced or waived through community service, and the City Council needed to allocate more funds to the police department’s Mobile Intervention Service Team for additional law enforcement members.

More data on the homeless also needs to be collected, it stated.

While more permanent housing is the main goal, Price said immediate solutions need to be put in place to help the homeless now. Tent cities and tiny home communities have also proven to be successes and give people a much-needed sense of community.

Providing storage space for people during the day was also critical, Price said.

“How can you fill out job applications when all of your stuff is with you,” he said.

As the city moves forward, it’s important for the homeless and formerly homeless to have a seat at the table, Price said, because lived experience can help guide policy solutions in a more effective direction.

“It starts building positive lines of communication instead of battering someone psychologically,” Price said. “That begins to rebuild trust on both sides. It’s a win-win situation.”

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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