Gimme Shelter

by Mark Scaramella, December 10, 2009

Gimme Shelter

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors heard from the County's shelter administrators last Tuesday. Being intimately familiar with outdoor living, Mr. McEwen is co-authoring this report.

The only person at the meeting who had anything close to a practical grasp of this county's unsheltered was Lisa Hillegas, Legal Services attorney. She has successfully sued the County to get the County to prepare an “affordable” housing plan, but Mendo has proven immovable in getting affordable housing built.

Ms. Hillegas noted that most of the homeless in Mendocino County have some income but remain unsheltered. What there is of low-income housing has long waiting lists.

Our well-housed Supervisors only confused the issue, which is really a federal one beyond local remediation short of tent cities. (In living fact, a tent city of a sort proved quite successful in Fort Bragg one winter, but it was one large, circus-like tent which blew down one night in a big storm.)

Supervisor David Colfax twice interrupted the discussion to complain — at length — that the numbers about the distribution of funds to various homeless programs in the County didn't add up.

The numbers added up. Both times.

Colfax also seemed to think Mendocino Village’s dank, foreboding, vertical septic tank of a public toilet disguised as a homey little cabin on the bluffs belonged in the discussion of local homelessness. The supervisor launched into a Professor Irwin Corey-like monologue that seemed to suggest separate but equal public bathroom facilities.

“When we get complaints about toilets on the coast,” said Colfax (the “we” in this case being Supervisor Colfax) “…for the homeless, to take an issue that's a burning issue, at the moment, and the question becomes, well, what about toilets throughout the county? Okay? When we start talking about meeting that need. And again, to be very… earthy about this, the question has to be, okay, do we take care of the homelessness need for public facilities on the coast equitably with public facilities, or toilet facilities in the north county? And I think that's where the numbers as presented here generate the concern.”

The public toilet in Mendocino may be used by the occasional homeless person, but it’s a public toilet used mostly by tourists who must wonder why such a tidy little town maintains such a rank pissoir.

Most of the day's homeless discussion was based on a “point in time” survey conducted last January when house-less-ness is felt most keenly, in the bones. Several homeless people were recruited to assist in that survey, among them our very own unsheltered Mr. McEwen who remembers it well if not fondly. Mr. McEwen and his fellow surveyors received $10 phone cards for participating. If you called Boonville from a Fort Bragg phone booth — the only phones available to the homeless are public phones and they're nearly extinct — the phone card caller is charged an exorbitant fee off the top, meaning two short calls from Fort Bragg to Boonville and the homeless count pay day was gone.

At any rate, the numbers resulting from last January’s survey indicated that (1) Overall numbers of County homeless were dramatically down from the first survey in 2005, and (2) There were more homeless on the coast than there were inland, even though more money was being spent on homelessness inland.

Besides the suspiciously lower numbers compared to previous surveys — the economy hadn't crashed in '05; it has crashed since — the rest of the report was hardly news to anyone: more men than women are homeless; the majority of homeless people became homeless in Mendocino County, they didn't drift in from elsewhere; churches, food banks, soup kitchens, and various County offices are trying to do something for the homeless.

No one involved could explain why there were more homeless people on the Mendocino Coast. They seemed truly stumped. County homeless program coordinator Kathleen Stone thought that the overall numbers were down because “those motivated are moving into housing.”

Supervisor Kendall Smith thought the homeless may prefer the Fort Bragg area because of the larger number of campgrounds there. Clearly, Ms. Smith has never shouldered a pack and hiked the seven miles out the old Haul Road to the campground at Mackerricher State Park. As is her style, Smith rattled off a jargon-riddled statement that was absolutely incoherent, concluding with what seemed to be a request for homeless “equity” with inland Mendocino County.

The reason the homeless prefer the coast to the Ukiah Valley is really quite simple: rat packs of Nautilus Youth, for sport, beat up homeless people in Willits, and the liberal Ukiah City Council, along with the County itself, have enacted a number of ordinances to dissuade homeless people from staying overnight anywhere along the Highway 101 corridor. The fine for “camping” — a euphemism for sleeping outdoors under a bush at night — is $600, not to mention a trip to jail. There’s even a Ukiah city ordinance against selling used camping gear. Moreover, Ukiah's shelter and the soup kitchen are on opposite ends of town, and you only have a half an hour to get from Plowshares, which offers a very basic sack meal, way down on South State Street to the Buddy Eller shelter for the evening, and if you're late, you’re stuck out in the cold.

The churches on the Coast, on the other hand, serve hot lunches almost every day, and the well-run Hospitality House serves a real dinner nightly for everyone, whether they stay there or not. And, of course, it's simply not as cold on the coast, an important consideration to someone sleeping out in the weather. And the Coast aesthetic, with its fine old buildings and ocean views, is radically superior to inland Mendocino County's miles of visual squalor that constitute the main drags of Ukiah and Willits.

The unexpectedly lower reported numbers of homeless people in the County?

No one asked how the numbers of homeless could go down so dramatically in the middle of a major recession. County staffers insisted that they used the same methodology in January of 2009 as they did in January of 2005. But given the number of variables in an already small population the “same methodology” may still produce wide variations.

Supervisor John McCowen's skewed view of the homeless was the ancient, cynical attitude that if you put out a sugar cube ants will come. McCowen, who inherited a tidy little fortune and has never had to work let alone worry about where he would sleep at night, implied that Mendo was too welcoming to homeless people and asserted that Mendocino County had become “a dumping ground” for another, unnamed county, and that the numbers of homeless, low as they reportedly are compared to a few years ago, had been inflated to get maximum funding for existing programs and staff. McCowen also suggested imposing some kind of “residency requirement” on homeless services.

Board Chair John Pinches had some novel ideas.

A better mathematician than supervisor Colfax, Pinches assessed the problem this way: “If you calculate the 1206 homeless [as counted in the survey] into the $1.8 million that's roughly $1500 per homeless person per winter. Maybe we'd be better off than having all the bureaucracies and everything just go out there the first cold night of the fall and write them all a check for $1500 bucks and say…” Pinches waved his hand in a gesture of magnanimous what the hell — you’re on your own.

The County’s homeless coordinator, Mary Lou Leonard, laughed outloud and said, “I don't think HUD would give us the money to write $1500 checks!”

Pinches was underdeterred.

He next proposed to use the $1500 per person to buy motel vouchers which police could hand out, remarking that homeless people who break windows to gain access to overnight shelter could instead be given vouchers and sent to a motel rather than being taken to jail, a much more expensive proposition than a motel voucher.

Vouchers are presently reserved for homeless families, and most of the homeless are single men.

“My point is,” continued Pinches, “if a guy has lost his job and has three kids, maybe if you can go and give him $1500 for two or three months that would be better than letting them drop into full homelessness and then trying to deal with the problem.”

Ms. Leonard replied, “The stimulus money will go to landlords so that we can help people pay back rent because of lost jobs or rent forward to help stabilize them so they can stay in their households.”

“The basic problem is the loss of the job,” insisted Pinches, “then government deals with the problem afterward.”

Sheriff Allman stepped forward to address Pinches’ motel-vouchers-issued-by-cops idea.

“We don't want deputies to take people to jail for shelter and food,” insisted Allman. “There are transients and there are homeless. But if they commit crimes, we will take them to jail.” The Sheriff was making it clear that lawbreakers (e.g., “campers” or any other visible overnighters) will continue to go to jail.

Pinches asked that staff look into the idea of cops handing out motel vouchers and asked to get a report back on his idea.

Health and Human Services Director Susan Era promised she would report back.

And that was it for the homeless as temperatures dipped into the 20's last Monday night.

* * *

Sheriff Allman reported that on January 25th the state is scheduled to begin releasing people from state prisons to relieve overcrowding.

“I’m not looking forward to January 25th,” said Allman, adding that he expected the majority of the boys coming home to Mendoland will immediately re-offend.

“133 is the number the Department of Corrections says they’ll be returning to Mendocino County. Some of them will not be on parole. So if they’re arrested, we will have to start over with charges. We won’t be able to simply report them to their parole officer.”

County CEO Tom Mitchell, just back from a tax-paid, week-long junket to Monterey with two supervisors, Smith (of course) and Carrie Brown, plus three senior County employees (County road boss Howard Deshield, Board Clerk Christy Furman and Assistant CEO Carmel Angelo) — for the annual California State Association of Counties conference — said he'd learned that there are “troubling items” in the County’s future: the state has a $6-7 billion deficit this year, and $13 billion next year — news available to Mitchell for free on the internet and even in a newspaper for fifty cents. Mitchell, a master of the non sequitur, told the Ukiah Daily Journal “The benefit (of the junket) is having a fully informed electorate.”

Rank and file County employees are not permitted to travel at public expense at all these days, but the leadership? Hello, room service? Put it on Mendocino County's tab.

Board chair John Pinches, who didn’t go on the junket, was more blunt, and much more astutely to the point about the reality of what's ahead.

“The state has over $200 billion in bonded indebtedness and a $20 billion annual deficit. This whole talk about what's going to happen over five years [a rolling $20 billion deficit at best] means nothin'. The only reason they [declared the budget balanced] was with the $15 billion last year of borrowed money, but they couldn't borrow the money so now that's a carry over to this deficit. But this state— You know, if you listen to the financial shows, talk shows and finances back in New York where most of your big financial institutions are, there's a lot of talk about California going through bankruptcy. They see that as the only option for California. That's kinda scary in itself. … The state is dysfunctional. They push a lot of paper but they don't get anything done. All they do is go further in debt.”

Ditto for Mendocino County.

Pinches also bemoaned the ongoing water deficit.

“Lake Mendocino is probably going to be lower every year from now on,” said Pinches. “We need to move faster on this water issue.”

Pinches was referring to the continued foot-dragging by CEO Tom Mitchell in making arrangements for drawing water from the Boy Scout Lake near Willits. The Boy Scout's lake could become as a major water storage facility for inland Mendocino. The Boy Scouts are amenable, but… But as Pinches suggests, the County's CEO, as usual, has not kept up the County's end for months now.

Toward the end of another typically irresolute Tuesday, KZYX money commentator John Sakowicz was on hand to bask in the glow of his stepson who had been a crew member on a boat that went to visit the continent-sized, and growing, “garbage gyre” in the middle of the Pacific. Supervisor Pinches was inspired to offer some environmental advice for Christmas shoppers: “Use paper bags, not plastic. Buy your grandson a wood toy instead of a plastic toy. If you buy a toy made out of wood it helps the timber industry. In my opinion it starts with the consumer. If we start going back to the old days where all kids got a toy that was made outta wood for Christmas that helps your timber industry. You buy a toy that's made out of plastic it helps foreign nations that are trying to kill us. So that's the difference.”

Well, Supervisor, if you make a house outta wood you don't have a houseless American in January either, but if you gotta federal government that bankrupts itself fighting a holy war on the other side of the world you don't have money to put people to work in the woods to make houses for the houseless or wooden toys for the kids, and if you gotta a government that puts money into the pockets of bank owners instead of the pockets of everyday Americans we gotta a doomed country instead of a renewable one, don't we? So that’s the difference.

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