EPD is not doing ‘wholesale homeless camp sweeps,’ chief says

Solutions for homeless in age of coronavirus not easy, Steve Watson says

An individual walks through the homeless encampment at Palco Marsh, popularly known as the Devil’s Playground, in 2016 before it was broken up. Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said he wouldn’t allow a similar camp to develop during the novel coronavirus outbreak, but the department relaxed its stance on camping overnight on public land about a year and a half ago. (Will Houston — The Times-Standard file)
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The Eureka Police Department isn’t doing “wholesale homeless camp sweeps” during the novel coronavirus outbreak, but Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said the department isn’t going to let large-scale encampments to pop up.

“My staff reports we don’t presently have any large encampments but we are also not allowing them to develop as that would create a new host of problems with disease spread,” Watson wrote in an email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued interim guidance on homeless encampments is not to break them up because it “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” increasing the spread of infectious disease. The Eureka Police Department has had a policy in place for the last year and a half not to “enforce on public property overnight while people are normally sleeping.”

At the same time, Watson said the department has been receiving a lot of complaints of homeless individuals “trespassing and loitering in alcoves and doorways of private businesses, blocking access, causing damage, littering,” and the like.

“We are judiciously addressing these complaints out of necessity as we can get to them,” Watson wrote. “Voluntary cooperation to get them to move along in the morning is our preferred strategy over enforcement which is a last resort and one we are trying to avoid using, especially during this time (but really for the last 1 ½ years).”

In terms of the CDC guidelines, Watson said “one size doesn’t necessarily fit all” because the situation is unique in Eureka.

“I interpret those CDC guidelines to apply more to large homeless camps (such as the former Devil’s Playground), not scattered small sites with 1 or 2 tents or an individual with a sleeping bag,” Watson wrote. “I don’t think the CDC is suggesting if tent were to pop up in the middle of a sidewalk in Old Town tomorrow, we should ignore it and let it stay (and other tents to join until we have a well-entrenched homeless camp in the middle of a business district).”

Sgt. Leonard La France, the leader of the department’s Community Safety Enhancement Team that primarily works with the homeless, said the department is embedded with the homeless community and is still working to get individuals connected to resources, but has a hard time now that services have been scaled back.

Earlier this month, nonprofit Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives had to shut down its shower service for the homeless, and the local homeless shelters are practicing containment and no longer accepting new clients.

At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services installed hand-washing stations and portable toilets at different locations in the city to help the homeless follow health and safety precautions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

“Many of the homeless are frustrated with the changes occurring,” La France wrote in an email. “Even though they don’t completely understand what is happening.”

More than 50% of the city’s homeless have a physical disability or chronic health problem, more than 50% self-reported having a mental health issue and almost 60% self-reported issues with substance abuse, according to a survey of roughly 200 homeless individuals currently being conducted by the department.

Despite that, CSET and its partners are “trying to be transparent with information with them,” La France wrote, but “mental illness and addiction appear to create barriers for clarity of mind and cause irrational behavior.”

“In the end, all we can do is meet these individuals where they are at,” he wrote, “find out what their needs are, advocate for them, and then take actions to help with a state of urgency while still maintaining order and minimizing any negative impacts upon the community as a whole. It’s a constant balance.”

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the department has been “advocating relentlessly on behalf of the homeless’ needs and service gaps” and want to see an action plan implemented for the homeless during this crisis, Watson wrote.

The department has made several formal requests to fill those gaps, Watson wrote, “such as mobile, daily COVID-19 screening for the homeless by medical professionals outside high-use areas like Free Meal and the Eureka Rescue Mission.”

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

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