Homeless Action! Presentation to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors
Good morning, supervisors. Homeless Action would like to talk to you about safe encampments today. We agree with Jill Ravitch’s recent statement about Last Chance village, that your current approach of evicting and prosecuting homeless people essentially for not having enough money for decent housing is immoral, cruel, and expensive. We are sad and frustrated that you continue to support a policy of eviction when there is nowhere for the evicted to legally go. The needs of those who cannot go into shelters, which we think are roughly half the county’s homeless people, are constantly discounted and ignored.
Threading through our conversations with encampment residents are several important, underappreciated themes we volunteers have learned. First, the recognition that chance plays a hidden, large part in homelessness, especially now that rents have skyrocketed. You’ve heard them say that, but being around them helps us feel that truth. An injury, an argument, or a terrible boss starts a cascade downward in many lives. The flip side is also true: there are many situations where even a little help by a volunteer or the government can make a huge positive difference in their life.
Second, they teach us that even an unregulated, unslightly, crowded encampment is far, far safer than being alone on the streets. Even the present Joe Rodota Trail encampment is precious to them, though government took away the portapotty donated by charity, and they have no idea when the police will scatter them. Encampments tend to have a larger proportion of women because women can protect one another and enjoy the safety from predators provided by friends, neighbors, and volunteers. When arguments or domestic problems happen, friends rally to calm agitated people down. Things don’t spiral out of control like they can under bridges or in the woods.
Third, encampments allow them to develop and maintain the social and family ties that are so vital to success when there’s so much stacked against you. Friendship is fierce and fast when your neighbors face these same physical and psychological hardships. They speak of family when they talk about their fellow residents. Sickness, drugs, and thievery can take center stage for outsiders, and they are concerns for encampment residents, too. But we should never forget that our personal worth and meaning is found through our social lives– especially during hardship. If we have a strong support network of friends and personal cheerleaders, it’s much, much easier to succeed.
Homeless Action is asking you to immediately cease these evictions to nowhere. We volunteers have learned from our encampments that evictions and scatterings destroy the touchpoints we need for quality lives. People often lose the friends and family that gave their lives meaning, causing depression, instability, and the many health problems caused by loneliness and physical and mental stress. Medical monitoring becomes impossible. According to Public Health, diseases and illnesses and infections become slightly more likely in encampments– but that risk is more than offset by how it is far easier to track and treat such problems when the victims are in one place.
Volunteers can’t help scattered people with court cases, or get them to court or probation dates, or help with housing efforts. Aggressive police must be faced alone. Families can’t find children, or parents, or aunties. Pets can’t be identified or tracked or treated. Case workers or assigned volunteers become a pipe dream. Charity like clothes and food becomes impossible to deliver.
In an encampment, every single one of those problems goes away. Each of those tasks becomes a quantifiable goal that can be achieved through organization and teamwork.
A scattering causes a conflagration in the lives of innocent people who are already challenged greatly, like those whose voices you heard. Since April 17, desperate groups of residents have tried to form safe communities together on county, city, private, and park land. They were immediately scattered from all of them, causing sickness and the loss or theft of many possessions. They are thrilled to have been allowed to stay on the Joe Rodota Trail, along with about 75% of those who were at Last Chance and Remembrance villages.
Safe encampments now have a track record of years, in multiple locations. They are rapidly becoming common, because they can be a flexible, very cost effective way to grant homeless people their Constitutional right to a place where they are protected from needless government harassment and prosecution, and from predators and thieves. Oakland is going on four Tuff shed villages now, funded by government and citizens. Eugene, Oregon has four years of success with their Safe Spots, which combine public and private funding to house hundreds yearly in tents and oval roofed tiny homes. The homes are built by volunteers at a cost of little more than $1,000 each. Walla Walla successfully copy-catted a modest version of Eugene’s approach, and made a great success of it.
All these and others are very good projects. Safe encampments aren’t a utopian pipe dream, but a present success. They are a natural outgrowth of allowing healthy communities to form, with modest support by nonprofits or government.
But our purpose is different today. We are relatively far from creating those kind of programs. On a good day, KBBF seems a lead option, but still seems a dim glimmer. The sizes of encampments we’ve been talking about are very modest, too, which doesn’t help adequately with a need reliably measured in the hundreds. Right now, we have a population of about 75 on the Joe Rodota Trail who need a place immediately. Their tents are covered with signs that say “tell us where to go and we’ll go!” or “Where Do We Go?”
We ask you to follow the lead of Walla Walla, Washington and Eugene, Oregon and allow Homeless Action to manage an emergency encampment for now, on allocated government land. Both those cities allowed moderately experienced charities to lead the way initially; neither had nearly the experience with homelessness that Homeless Action! has. We ask government to provide our friends with the bare essentials of water, portapotties, washing stations, and trash service, in an encampment area capable of growing from an initial size of about 80 people to the approximately 200 people we see as initially in need of safe encampments in Sonoma County. We propose operating 40 transitional homes per acre, which provides space for sheds or tents while allowing plenty of room for community space, fire lanes, roads, and auxiliary and mobile services. That means we are asking for two or more acres initially on one or more sites, with up to five acres allocated by October.
These emergency villages are a straightforward proposition, and a very natural outgrowth of what Homeless Action accomplished at Remembrance and Last Chance, under much worse conditions. The basic structure is taken from many successful villages:
Self-managed villages of 30-40, with site oversight through Homeless Action! for now
Internal security by residents and volunteers, with police access and backup;
Chores will be assigned.
A person has to apply to join the encampment, and can be refused, since these encampments, like any other shelter choice, are not for everyone. The residents must be protected from the wrong people, who tend to cause the vast majority of major problems. Eviction is also possible if rules are disobeyed, as is common in unregulated encampments now. We estimate that about 15% of the residents of Last Chance and Remembrance would not be appropriate residents in our emergency encampment.
Housing First will be coordinated through Catholic Charities for now.
We encourage staff to take up KBBF and other initiatives aggressively, like safe parking initiatives, RV programs, and tiny house projects. In the meantime, emergency encampments will cost the government about $100 a month per person, with likely minimal initial infrastructure expense. We have inspected several county properties that are more than adequate for this 6-month proposal. By late October, when the weather turns, we can either perform responsible upgrades to the emergency encampments to face the winter safely, or other projects can come to the fore and take on the residents of the emergency encampments.
We are confident that this is the right path to take short-term. Homeless Action! and advisors in its Technical Advisory Group have the internal experience and community contacts to make this a success, as well as a small, experienced set of villagers who are getting used to managing sanitation, chores, security, and the other aspects of a successful community.
We have sent you
1) a one page guide on encampment best practices by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty,
2) a copy of the verbal part of this presentation,
3) a partial list of reasons why people cannot or will not use shelters,
4) and a page of research commentary concerning some encampment results, mostly in Oregon.
Thank you for the opportunity to share this vision. We look forward to discussing the details with you.