Homeless forum packs City Hall

| May 19, 2019 | 0 Comments

MARTINEZ, Calif. – “There’s no handbook to tell us how to do it,” Vice Mayor Noralea Gipner told the audience that packed Martinez City Hall for the community’s first forum on homelessness.

Each person has a story, she said, and the city and county don’t have all the resources to address all those who have no permanent home – a population that increased last year and, while plateauing somewhat this year, isn’t declining.

Members of the Coordinated Outreach Referral Engagement (C.O.R.E.) team and representatives of the Contra Costa County Health Services and public health clinics, District Attorney Diana Becton, the next Martinez Junior High School Principal Kerry Cusack, Janette Kennedy, development director of Loaves and Fishes, Scott and Kellee Trublood of Bay Church and Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal and Officer Rodney Brinser joined Gipner in describing available services and answering audience questions.

There’s no single answer to the complex issue, the audience heard. And the causes are many, Sappal said – lost jobs, addiction, mental health issues, rising housing cost are just a few.

It will take a collaboration with these partners to reduce the number of those who spend their nights on Martinez streets, Sappal said.

Jaime Jenett, of Contra Costa County Health Services, pointed out that while rents and home costs are rising, incomes are not increasing at the same rate. In fact, it takes more than four times the minimum wage to afford the average rent of $2,300 a month.

While the need for affordable housing is increasing, the number of units have declined by 66 percent, she said.

The county’s homeless is a varied population, a blend of adults, families and minors, some of whom have mental health issues, others who are dealing with substance abuse. Some are veterans. Others have a history of incarceration.

During a “point in time” population survey taken in January, Martinez had 117 sleeping outdoors that night. But that number can change, depending on the night, she said.

While some believe few government agencies are doing much to address the problem, Jenett said Contra Costa County has made progress in the past five years to streamline access to services, starting with calling 2-1-1, speaking to one of the C.O.R.E. outreach workers or by going to a care center.

From that start, a person can have his or her needs assessed, and then will be put in touch with the agencies that can provide services, she said. The streamlining can mean some individuals can have their circumstances improved quickly, she said.

The public can help, too, by becoming better informed, by being an advocate, even among their neighbors, and by donating, from money to materials to volunteer time, to those dealing with the homeless.

Michael Fischer, who oversees the C.O.R.E outreach, said the program has become active starting in 2017, striving to help the most vulnerable who are on the street, to build relationships and “to build trust in those who have lost trust.”

He praised the partnership of Pleasant Hill and Martinez, which has its own two-member team, Talia Anderson and Felix Jackl who divide their time between the two cities. Fischer oversees a total of 10 teams, who go out to the places where homeless may be found – tunnels, waterways and encampments, getting them to the Department of Motor Vehicles for identification cards and to the county’s regional hospital for health care.

Like his colleagues, Fischer said partnerships are needed. “There is no magic bullet,” he said. And like the others, he said homeless people have a variety of experiences, from trafficking to re-entry after incarceration or arrests. Most have experienced some form of trauma, from being a child of divorce or being divorced themselves on up to various types of abuse.

They’ve been homeless for as little as a year on up to 28 years, he said, based on a survey of 32 who were willing to answer a series of questions. A little more than a third would accept a shelter, but 88 percent wanted an unshared room of their own and 94 percent wanted their own apartment.

They see Martinez as a safe community, and many have ties to this city, he said.

C.O.R.E. teams can make a difference, he said, describing one often-told story about a man who cost Contra Costa County residents $17.7 million through multiple arrests, emergency room trips, treatments and other services while he remained a substance abuser who lived on the streets.

The first contacts with a C.O.R.E. team weren’t successful, but by the third event, he decided he was ready to do that it took to get on his feet. He now is housed, Fischer said. Instead of costing the county $1 million or more a year, the man’s cost to the county has dropped to $5,000.

Beth Gaines, of the Contra Costa County nurse program manager, described the type of heath care provided to the homeless through mobile vans that regularly make stops at specific sites.

She said the county’s homeless can be defined in many ways, but in this area, they can be those living on the streets, using the couches or floors of friends and others, including shifting from one place to another in a practice she called “couch surfing,” and some live in dog kennels in other people’s back yards.

The county provides basic primary care, can simplify the medications a homeless person is taking, make sure the person is getting the appropriate medications, conduct blood test, teach women how to take pap smears and provide dental care.

Even with vans taking services to places where homeless people can get to them, some people have reservations about using them. “Sometimes going to a mobile unit takes all they have,” she said.

Becton said that while her office deals with the criminal justice system, she also is promoting other ways of handling homeless situations while still keeping the community safe.

She also is familiar with legal changes and court rulings that protect the rights of the homeless. For instance, one court ruled that laws prohibiting sleeping in public violate the U.S. Constitution’s eighth amendment. “It’s not a crime to be homeless,” she said.

There are reasons for police to pick up a homeless person – public intoxication, disorderly conduct, use of drugs, thefts and assaults. But those taken to jail likely will be released back into the city. “The cycle perpetuates itself,” she said.

So her office is looking at alternatives, such as diversion programs for low-level and nonviolent crimes, a behavioral health court for higher level cases and through which treatment can be given in the community; and an upcoming pilot program, “CoCo LEAD,” that leads to referrals to services.

Contra Costa County is 15th among California’s counties in having people who are found incompetent to stand trial. However, before they reach that point, officers have had 18 opportunities to interact with that person, Becton said. Contra Costa County is in line to receive state funds to look at this situation.

In addition, her office is behind reentry services, to help remove barriers to a person staying out of trouble.

She said upcoming legislation may address the practice of hospitals and jails of releasing people in the middle of the night.

Cusack said the school district is trying to provide services to its 41 known homeless students without embarrassing them.

Homeless students have higher absenteeism and face such obstacles as missing records, but can be helped to achieve a high school diploma, she said.

The school district provides morning and after-school areas for homeless children, and provides special trips to stores so the children can acquire new clothes.

Brinser’s impact on how the city deals with its homeless population was felt when he had to be pulled off that assignment and put back on patrol when Martinez Police was too short-handed to let him participate in homeless outreach.

The City Council dipped into its reserves to supplement police salaries to make working at Martinez more appealing, and starting this year, the city will be accumulating revenues from a half-cent general sales tax that local voters approved in 2018, some of which will help maintain those salaries.

He said about half of the city want the homeless problem to go away, and the other half of residents want to pitch in and help. He sides with neither, but said people need to be fed and cared for.

The city’s situation is complicated by its being a county seat. People come from all over the county to Martinez, and in addition to the county hospital, Martinez is home to a veterans’ hospital, where patients are treated for post traumatic stress. Both deal with those in need of psychiatric treatment. Amtrak trains stop here, and some riders are told to leave the train at this exit, he said.

This impacts both business owners and residents, he said. Some businesses find homeless people camped out on their storefronts, while residents may wake up or return from work to find a stranger using their front porch as a home.

Both can sign a Martinez-issued no-trespassing document police can use to make arrests. And while it isn’t illegal for someone to sleep overnight on a sidewalk, those who set up camp in a city park, such as on a ball field, or in a cemetery will be told to leave.

Even if he issues a 72-hour notice for an encampment to be removed. Brinser will cut a group some slack if they need more time, depending on where it is. He also will distribute trash bags to the homeless, and urge them to dump full ones into city receptacles.

City Manager Eric Figueroa said the city also has installed sharps disposal boxes, used not only by the homeless but also by diabetics who take insulin.

Brinser said when people feed the homeless in parks or when Loaves and Fishes are serving their meals, Martinez Police gets fewer calls about petty crimes.

He praised partners who are working to help the homeless, including Bay Church, which has been providing laundry service to the homeless on Pacheco Boulevard, and has built a portable shower unit that can let the homeless wash up before donning their newly-cleaned clothes.

If encampments are forced to move, however, belongings are stored for 90 days unless the owners of the property tell police the items no longer are wanted.

He said police will reach out to family members and may even transport someone to the family’s home, or to a warming center.

He hasn’t been homeless himself, but Brinser said he knows most of those who live in Martinez unhoused. He knows it takes time to build trust. “But when I give you my word, I give you my word,” he said.

Kennedy said Loaves and Fishes serves between 130 and 150 meals daily at its Martinez dining room, and distributes another 20,000 pounds of food monthly through its food pantry. All who are hungry are welcome.

Loaves and Fishes also provides use of 32 mailboxes on a first come, first served basis, so homeless people have an address to use when applying for jobs or housing.

Of those who dine in Martinez or one of its other dining rooms, 46 percent are homeless. Many others are older residents on fixed incomes.

Four times a year, Loaves and Fishes teaches a food preparation class, and most of its graduates have been placed in jobs.

Kennedy urged people to volunteer to serve meals, donate socks and toiletries, attend events and otherwise contribute to the food provider.

The Trubloods described how Bay Church provides laundry service to 40 or 50 people the third Saturday of the month at the Laundry Basket on Pacheco Boulevard.

Their dream is to find a site to set up their shower trailer, which can accommodate up to four people at once, with additional barber seats for haircuts. They would use hydrant water, and would dispose of used water in the city’s sewer system.

“This is giving them dignity,” Kellee said. “They feel better about themselves.”

Scott called the approach “Radical hospitality.”

The audience was allowed to ask questions after the presentations, and one woman worried about a released hospital patient she saw walking in the middle of Alhambra Avenue, causing cars to swerve to avoid her. Eventually, police put the patient into a patrol car. The woman wondered why the patient was released when she wasn’t mentally well.

Most psychiatric holds last just 72 hours, Sappal said. “People get released, and we deal with the issue.”

He agreed the system could be better, but said those who call police who aren’t satisfied should call the department and ask to speak with him.

Two members of the audience, one of whom is currently homeless, expressed dissatisfaction with calling 2-1-1 to reach a C.O.R.E. team. One said he was told no one would come after hours, even for a welfare heck, and the homeless person said that the team and other agencies represented Thursday had not helped her obtain any services, despite her having a rough time on the streets.

One man worried the three-day notice for an encampment removal violated a court ruling, although Sappal said the decision only related to sleeping on sidewalks, which the court said must be allowed if the person has no permanent home.

In answering a resident’s question about the city prohibition against sleeping in a car, Brinser said most people who are reported agree to drive off. Currently, there’s no “safe space” parking area for homeless people to sleep in their cars, and allowing one person to sleep in a closed public park would set a precedence, he said.

Figueroa said the city’s partners need volunteers. “Volunteers make these programs go,” he said. Saying the city and its Council can’t solve it all, he urged residents to contact state and federal officials and urge them to help address homelessness.

Currently, there are no shelter beds available in Martinez, although they exist in other parts of the county, the audience heard. But those wanting to end their years on the street are being urged to start in shelters and step by step move forward into permanent housing.

And if Martinez has 117 people on the street, not all want to leave the open-air life, Brinser said. So the city might start trying to help the portion willing to improve their situations.

Lack of computers doesn’t interfere with those who need services, Jenett said. Between C.O.R.E. teams and care centers, the homeless can be put in touch with those services.

One homeless woman thanked the city for having the forum. Saying she was brought up attending church, she said, “The law is simple. Treat people with kindness.”

One resident worried that some of the services were enabling homeless people to stay homeless. He worried that the approaches weren’t working. He also was frustrated because he has worked hard to provide similar things to his family.

But he also argued in favor of providing housing, something that would help the homeless take ownership.

Gipner was pleased with the turnout and participation, saying the forum “was even better than I thought.” She said the next step is to find a safe parking area for those living in cars and to engage churches and other worshiping congregations. Eventually, she said, she wants to form a team that would seek creative answers to the situation.

Sappal said he also thought the forum was productive, and that it provided an in-depth overview of homelessness and what is being done for the unhoused. He also was pleased that audience members used the opportunity ask questions and that so many of the county and nonprofit partners participated.

The housing situation is a statewide situation, Figueroa said. However, like Sappal, he was glad to see so many agencies working together to help the homeless. “It’s your role as well,” he told the audience. “Volunteers make these programs go.”

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