Dear Honorable Mayor and Eureka city councilpersons,
My name is Craig Mesman and I had the opportunity to address the Eureka city manager, and several city councilpersons and city staff months ago. I am from Ferndale/Fortuna, but currently reside in San Luis Obispo where I am the VP of the nonprofit “Hope’s Village of SLO”. Remember me? I was in Humboldt and became aware that you seemed to be interested in housing the homeless in tiny houses- which is what we seek to accomplish here in SLO. You invited me to come and speak, and I did, and you graciously listened to me. Thank you again for your hospitality.
I keep up with the news up there and I see that you continue to struggle with the homeless issue in Eureka…..mostly in the Devil’s Playground. I also see that you are proposing some ordinances which are basically aimed indirectly at the homeless. I think it would be much more honorable, honest and direct for you to just come out and say that being homeless is illegal. Your idea to effect an ordinance outlawing building materials in that area will have to be changed when you begin construction yourselves in that area! Think about what you’re doing. Why pass new laws? Isn’t trespassing already illegal? If you need to deal with an issue, use the tools you already have, and don’t resort to passing special laws that we all already know are aimed at a certain group. Do you recall the Jim Crow laws from your history studies? You may want to Google that- I just did so as a refresher for myself.
In my presentation to you I brought up the example of Opportunity Village in Eugene Oregon. It is an established and functioning tiny house village for the local homeless there. I also brought your attention to a book written by Andrew Heben, a young urban planner who helped design and build that village. He even came to Eureka for a presentation a while back. What I want to convey to you is that both Eugene and Portland Oregon have villages for the homeless, and they were both preceded by a scenario very similar to yours- evicting the homeless from an area, then they move to a new area, then they’re evicted again, and so on…… They don’t go away, do they? When they are evicted, it begs the question that ALL municipalities who do the same face- where do these folks go? They disperse, then regroup somewhere else. Just like you’d do if you were in their situation. So unless you come up with some sort of truly workable solution, you will continue to be faced with the same unending problem. Perhaps what prompted Portland and Eugene to form those villages was, in reality, just exasperation.
In the martial arts there is the concept of “sugar and the stick”. Use the sugar first, then if the sugar doesn’t work, use the stick. A wise approach. ALL the homeless won’t respond ALWAYS to sugar, and ALL the homeless won’t respond ALWAYS to the stick. They, like us, need to be addressed as individuals. Consider the following- to try to take away their basic human right to sleep somewhere,you run the risk of violating certain unalienable rights that we all have, and at the least, simply violate basic human needs. When there is a natural catastrophe, we respond with aid, and then later with help to rehouse if necessary. So, perhaps before you evict folks who have nowhere to go, and before you attempt to take away some basic human rights, maybe you ought to do better at providing some sort of place or shelter where everyone knows for a fact that these homeless people could go to. It seems that our society primarily responds to the social phenomenon of homelessness with the force of law (the stick) and doesn’t often give the sugar a fair and thorough try. I’ve worked closely with the homeless for years. Some are criminals in the traditional sense, most aren’t. Jail is always available for offenders, but housing is rarely available for the non-offenders. Most respond well, like you and I do, to honesty, fairness and compassion. I suggest that you continue to use the existing law where it is appropriate, but use some compassion mixed with real opportunity to try to house and help the homeless folks who are ready- and with all their addictions and issues that come with them. It’s a tall order, isn’t it? Show me a place where a homeless addict with no money can go to for an extended length of time to get shelter, food, and help with his issues…….it doesn’t fully exist does it? That’s the problem, but that’s the key to the solution. Create such a place. It’s possible. I’ve seen it……. And unless you take the realistic steps to fully comprehend and carry out this approach, you and other cities taking currently similar actions will be doomed to repeat the process you are going through over and over again.
Thank you for listening to me. To conclude I will say the following:
1) Pay attention to, and work with those local citizens who already know and work with the homeless, to get a good and accurate perspective. Examine your own opinions to determine where they came from, how they were formed, and if they are accurate.
2) Give Opportunity Village of Eugene a good look. Talk to the people there who are closely associated with it- both the local public officials, and the people who help run the village. See what you can learn from their experience.
3) Use some “sugar”. Treat people like you would like to be treated if for whatever reason you found yourself in a similar situation. If you happen to be so proud as to think that you would never ever be in a similar situation, then none of what I say will matter to you… Most people respond well to love, compassion, dignity, and hope, and if you want to positively effect lasting social change then this is the approach I’d put my money on……
4) Use existing laws…the “stick”, but don’t keep creating more and new discriminatory ones.
5) The homeless folks who are ready for it need a truly good place to be- free of drinking, drugging and drama- a place that offers real hope for real change for as long as it takes. Jail, homeless shelters, the river bar, etc. all offer some of these components, but not all of them. I believe that the key to success is to offer all that is needed. A huge order, isn’t it? But that’s what needs to be done. It seems that we ought to be able to do at least as much for our fellow man and we do for a stray animal that we pick up…
6) Finally, the truth is that the marijuana industry, along with other associated drugs, forms a huge part of the foundation of Humboldt’s economy. There are lots of alcohol and other abuses present too (check CA state statistics for Humboldt County). You see it there yourselves every day and therefore become “immune” to it to some extent. Those things are here in SLO too, but not nearly to the same extent as in Humboldt County! So consider your foundation and ask yourself- is it really healthy? You have a local economy and subculture based on things that are simply not socially or physically healthy- it’s extensive there and we all know it. Fix the foundation first.
I may have offended you with some of my writing, but I did not mean to purposefully disrespect you in any way- I only wanted you to consider my words and to think. I wish you the best with your dealings with everyone involved in this issue- the citizens, the police, the homeless, all government officials. I know that you are in an uncomfortable and persistent bind, but remember that many problems are indeed simply opportunities waiting to realized. The reality exists that you, Eureka, could be one of the first cities to constructively deal with this “opportunity” and could serve as an enviable and workable model for the rest of the nation.