MARTINEZ, Calif. – Homelessness and its impacts have become more visible in Martinez. Those worried about the impacts and those with ideas for solutions are welcome to participate Thursday in a community forum moderated by Vice Mayor Noralea Gipner.
Gipner has spearheaded the forum, which she hopes will lead to conversations about homelessness and creative approaches to resolve related situations.
Her idea for the forum began after Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal invited Gipner to attend a bimonthly meetings of the Coordinated Outreach Referral Engagement (C.O.R.E.) team this city shares with Pleasant Hill.
Its leader, Michael Fischer, urged her to keep attending. At one meeting, she received support for her suggestion of a forum.
“Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill had done one, so I knew it could be done,” Gipner said.
“My motivation for having this forum is to educate the citizens of Martinez about what is being done to help the homeless,” she said.
Participants are the Martinez Community and Economic Development and Martinez Police departments; the Contra Costa Health, Housing and Homeless Service, through which the C.O.R.E. teams operate; the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office; Martinez Unified School District; and local organizations Loaves and Fishes and Bay Church, who will have speakers at the forum who also will answer questions.
“I chose organizations who are doing what I call ‘good deeds’ in Martinez,” she said. But part of the city’s growing homeless problem are a county problem, too.
“Cities are not set up to provide services, but are now required to do so, because nobody else really is. This is why we have a C.O.R.E. program. Martinez was the first city to start such a thing,” Gipner said.
The city has put needle containers in bathrooms, in hopes that addicts will place their used syringes there. Gipner said she hopes to see more portable toilets in areas where homeless people congregate to reduce body waste on the streets.
She’s heard public complaints about closed public restrooms, especially in Waterfront Park. She said the harbormaster’s restroom is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the new playground restroom is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and those near the bocce ball courts are open 24 hours during bocce season, but are closed in the off season because of past vandalism, she said.
Sappal said additional portable toilets in the Martinez Marina are available for the homeless to use, and that strategy hs reduced damage and vandalism to other restrooms.
Neither the C.O.R.E. Team nor police officers can be everywhere, Gipner said. But other organizations are considering offering assistance, such as downtown ambassadors from the Martinez Chamber of Commerce.
“It is going to take the entire community working together to be able to get this problem addressed,” she said, adding that Martinez can’t undertake the task alone.
Gipner said she has considered other ways to help, such as safe parking areas for those who live in their vehicles; and to form a team to come up with even more approaches.
She said she wants to work with Martinez Police Officer Rodney Brinser to develop a program that provides shelter and training so more homeless can become independent.
The nature of the situation is complex, Gipner said. “We have a group of homeless who are addicts. They are the ones doing terrible things, but this puts all homeless in the same category, which is unfair.”
Gipner said homelessness is not against the law. “Put yourself in their shoes. Working together and cooperating, we can get much done.”
She listed multiple reasons that people find themselves unhoused. “Greedy landlords, drugs, alcohol, mental health issues, abusive relationships, loss of job, and I am sure there are million more reasons,” she said.
“I am told that millions of Americans are just a paycheck away from being homeless. At our forum, these issues will be addressed,” she said.
Sappal agreed, saying the cause of homelessness “is a complicated question.”
Some can’t afford rent, others have life challenges that have led to addiction to drugs and alcohol, which in turn cause a downward spiral that leads to homelessness, he said. “We have some homeless that are veterans and ended up homeless for a variety of reasons,” he said.
“How do we help them become productive citizens? That is also a complicated question,” Sappal said.
A small percentage refuse to become productive and others are so accustomed to living on the streets they don’t want to live differently.
The longer they’re homeless, the harder it is for them to recognize other options, he said. “Many of them grew up in Martinez and do not wish to leave.”
Part of Thursday’s program will be a video about Martinez’s homeless people. It includes interviews with some of them.
“The people feel very unwanted,” Gipner said. So she expects few will attend the forum to share their stories. That disappoints her. “I feel they need to be there.”
Like Gipner, Sappal said addressing homelessness requires collaboration between Martinez, Contra Costa County and various service providers.
“A large part of this process is building relationships with people and getting better understanding of their specific issues to include why and how they became homeless as well as what obstacles they face in getting housing,” he said.
The situations often are made more complicated by addiction, alcoholism and mental illness, he said.
Sappal introduced members of the Martinez-Pleasant Hill C.O.R.E. Team a few years ago, during a meeting organized by the Martinez Chamber of Commerce. He also introduced Brinser as his department’s representative in the homeless community.
At that meeting, he explained that homelessness isn’t a crime, but that some homeless people commit lower level crimes and impact “quality of life issues.” Few of those crimes ca;; for jail time – most result in citations, he said.
“We will not arrest our way out of the problem,” he said.
“While we do understand there is frustration, and the response by some is that we need to follow up with criminal enforcement on homelessness, the fact remains that the current legal system is not set up to deal with homelessness, and we need to find alternative mechanisms of managing the problem.”
He said he shares residents’ frustrations when parks and public areas are damaged, and said his officers take action in those cases.
His department also works with the District Attorney’s Office and the C.O.R.E. team to follow up on those cases and make sure violators are held accountable.
“The public can assist us in reporting behavior to the Police Department, so we can respond to assess and take action,” he said. The number is 925-372-3440.
“We do have homeless that commit crimes, have substance abuse issues and mental illness – we take action that we can within the law to address these problems,” he said.
He said officers patrol the downtown area regularly.
Businesses can sign a form concerning those who trespass on their property, so they can be arrested. “We will also arrest for violations that involve defecating and urinating in public,” he said.
He said the shopping district storefronts have many entryways that provide shelter from the elements. Recent court rulings have said laws against overnight camping on city streets can’t be enforced except under specific circumstances, he said.
Sappal said his department and outreach workers “spend a considerable amount of time trying to build trust and credibility with homeless people in an effort to convince them to get help and take resources.”
But the homeless can’t be forced into shelters or programs, he explained. “People have to make those choices themselves.” At times, the efforts have succeeded, but it takes “an immense amount of time getting people to the point where they decide to get help.”
Those who commit crimes or have certain behavior problems aren’t suitable for shelters. “We arrest those that violate the law,” Sappal said. He works with District Attorney Diana Becton in dealing with repeat offenders.
Martinez can’t solve the issue alone, and needs partnerships with other organizations and agencies, Sappal said. “But we can work together to manage the problem.”
That’s one of the reasons for the forum – to encourage those partnerships, provide education and explore answers, he said.
Sappal said he, Gipner and other participants are hoping “to engage in a positive dialogue with the community on what we are doing, as well as listen to concerns.”
He acknowledged that some residents want the city and his officers to take immediate action, but explained there’s no easy solution. He said it will take multiple levels of government to address limited affordable housing, the inability to afford other homes and the many other reasons people are living on the street.
“Since the forum is open to everyone, we may also have other service providers attend to share how they may be able to collaborate with us to expand our reach with the homeless,” he said. “We should be holding forums such as these with more frequency in order to keep the community informed.”
The Martinez Community Forum on Homelessness will take place from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at Martinez City Hall, 525 Henrietta St.