FORT BRAGG, CA — No hard data exists to confirm how many homeless people are living in Fort Bragg or Mendocino Village, and accurate counts are impossible to acquire since most homeless do not stay in the same place for any length of time. It’s easy to count those who seek help from available programs, but some stay in the background, occasionally appearing at a local pantry for a bag lunch or to inquire about a pair of shoes.
It’s important to note that an observer cannot determine someone’s shelter status simply by looking over the person’s general appearance. Many people who might look homeless are not, and many who look housed often live on the streets without a place to call home. Compared to many counties in California, Mendocino is impoverished, and while it’s common for many people to hold down two or three part-time jobs to support a family, living in cars, eating meals out, or new clothes are luxuries they cannot afford.
Many assistance groups define “homeless” differently, and some do not define the term at all but choose to serve anyone who asks for help. However, one accepted category is street-level homelessness, which means that a person is not housed in a residence at night. Another category describes persons housed in emergency shelters for a specific length of time. Yet another identifies persons living in institutions. Children have their own category.
The only definition of homelessness that matters is the official description given by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is responsible for providing qualifying states with funds to address housing needs or homeless services. The states supply funding to their counties which then disburse monies to their cities and towns. Of course, this whole process is far more complex than described.
According to Paul Davis, Executive Director of Hospitality House and the Hospitality Wellness Center, Fort Bragg has approximately 75 to 125 homeless people living in or near the city limits. Rachelle Sutherland, an Outreach Coordinator at the Fort Bragg Food Bank, also places her estimate at about 125 people. If transients, who are just passing through, and those living in cars are included, Sutherland believes there are probably closer to 160 or more people in all. She estimates Mendocino Village’s homeless population at about 8 to 10. Sutherland and Executive Director Amanda Friscia stressed that they do not require proof of homelessness to serve people’s emergency needs at the Food Bank.
Understanding who the homeless are is the first step in sorting out a homeless person’s relationship with the community. According to the 2018 Homeless Needs Assessment Report, presented by the national researcher Robert Marbut to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, approximately 70% of the homeless are at the least “somewhat homegrown.” Of that number, 39% were born, raised, and educated within the county. Another 23% were not raised here but later followed family members who had moved here, and the last 38% have no community connections at all. This last group tends to be chronically homeless.
Mayor Bernie Norvell understands how easy it is for some in the business community to stigmatize the homeless. “We have this moral obligation to take care of people,” he said. “They’re humans. But it’s hard when what somebody is doing is affecting your way of life or business.” He added, “It’s hard not to think poorly of that person who’s camped out in front of your store or running off customers. By human nature, it’s easy to look down on people.”
Marbut’s report emphasized that the “root triggers” of homelessness “are almost all behavioral health in nature, such as addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and domestic violence.” Nowhere in the report is there mention of homelessness as a life choice, and Mayor Norvell accepts Marbut’s conclusion and would like the public to imagine “what a lot of these people are struggling with– mental health, alcohol, drugs.”
He advises the community to be open-minded. “Before you react to what somebody is doing,” he said, “maybe stop and think. What if he were someone you knew or was once a classmate? How would you approach it? You can be mad, but understand that he probably doesn’t want to be there either.”
Outpatient medical and mental services are available here through local non-profit organizations. These groups are not licensed to treat substance abuse and can only refer people to treatment facilities far from the coast. Davis explained the drawbacks of the referral system. “Telling a street homeless, addicted person with mental health issues that treatment is far from Fort Bragg isn’t particularly successful because part of your addiction is sticking to what you know.”
This roadblock is further exacerbated by research showing that homeless people are far more likely to find success from treatment when they are near family and friends. Many of these distant treatment facilities are private and deliberately selective regarding whom they accept. Individuals seeking drug/alcohol treatment who also take medications for mental health issues may never move up on a waiting list. These treatment centers do not also want to manage someone’s prescription needs.
Davis pointed out that, in these cases, “If you’re desperate with a drug problem, there’s not a whole lot you can do today. For folks in that position, today is what matters.” Even more discouraging is the lack of affordable housing available in our area. Davis said there had been some evictions recently since COVID rent subsidies have dried up.
Some researchers believe that the loss of a home due to a rent increase or job loss is the number one cause of homelessness. Many people have not recovered from the pandemic shutdown that ended their employment. As it is, Fort Bragg has only one emergency shelter for up to 24 people and one transitional independent living home for 15 people. The downtown Hospitality Wellness Center houses another ten transitional residents.
The Marbut Report also stated that in our county, there is a “strikingly high number of individuals in the 1-3 year range” length of time who are homeless. The report stipulated a direct correlation between the length of time a person is homeless and the likelihood the person will gain a stable life. Too many here are unemployed, although there are a few businesses in town that will offer a job if one is available. Quick re-housing can be the path to success. Often, neither opportunity is available, and as time goes on, the odds are dramatically against those trapped in this situation.
Mayor Norvell sees the low-income Plateau subdivision being constructed on South Street as a partial solution to the housing shortage. The city received $3 million from a state-directed county program to help fund the project. Of the 63 units, some have been set aside for homeless applicants. These are rent based and will require the individual to pay 30% of total income to live there.
Norvell’s concern is that because the city did accept state government funds, the city can’t restrict applicants to only people who already live here, housed or not. Anyone in the state who meets the basic qualifications can apply for a unit. Norvell commented, “That kind of housing is great and is definitely needed, but it doesn’t house your community.”
For Norvell, homeless assistance is a personal mission. He has seen a classmate struggle with alcohol, sink into street homelessness, and die alone at night, most likely from hypothermia. He knows many other homeless by name and routinely interacts with them. For the homeless who come from far away, Norvell touts the grant-funded Homeward Bound Program. He also highlighted the compassionate work of the Fort Bragg Police Department to aid the homeless. The officers do what they can, from a cup of hot coffee to a ride to The Hospitality Center to a night of rest on a cot in the department’s lobby.
Davis and his Street Medicine Case Manager, Cathy Perkins, have a more upbeat outlook on the housing project. Perkins remarked that she had seen the acceptance lists for the Plateau and felt satisfied with the number of local people who would be housed. Her view is not intended to counter Norvell’s less satisfying outlook. Both Davis and Perkins work solely on behalf of the homeless daily and take success wherever and whenever they can find it. “You don’t get a lot of wins,” said Davis. “I just want to be honest about that. But when you do, there’s nothing better than that.”
Currently, there is very limited space in the county’s Ukiah outpatient clinics. The city of Fort Bragg operates the “CRU Van,” a Crisis Prevention Team that works alongside police officers to provide early intervention for those on the edge. By September, Norvell hopes to see the opening of “Crisis Respite,” a four-bed mental health facility located at the Mendocino Coast Adventist Hospital. The county and Redwood Community Services are partners as well, and the intent is to take in people who turn up in the ER who are in a crisis but are not violent.
All of our non-profit organizations diligently work to assist our homeless population. Some groups are more well-known in the community than others. The Fort Bragg Food Bank, the Mendocino Children’s Fund, the Mendocino Coast Clinics, and Hospitality House and Hospitality Wellness Center, which includes a specialty mental health clinic and a street medicine program, all actively fundraise. Other organizations have contracts with the county to provide mental and medical health treatment beyond Ukiah. Redwood Community Services, Safe Passage, Project Sanctuary, and others quietly serve people in need. These organizations rely on the generosity of private donors, large and small.
The city, the police department, and all the non-profit organizations would like the community to understand that most homeless people are not dangerous, do not spread contagious diseases, and do not actively choose to be homeless. What child has ever declared that homelessness was his ambition in life? Mayor Norvell said he has learned that homeless people “have struggles different from you and me.” Their demons, unfortunately, have handicapped their ability to lead stable, productive lives.
Everyone in our community should want to see people receive the help they need to rejoin society as contributing members. Important debates remain to be discussed about how service groups can avoid replicating each other’s services which could free up precious dollars for different needs, how to end the shortage of affordable housing, and how to develop an in-patient facility for substance abuse and mental health treatment. The public should not assume this debate belongs just to the service providers. It belongs to all of us.
(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)