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Sometime this month, if it hasn’t happened already, Redding police may begin citing homeless people camping on public property in the city.
Then again, they may not. Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that anti-camping ordinances such as Redding’s constitute cruel and unusual punishment if there is no shelter available for homeless campers, and therefore violate the 8th Amendment.
Although the city of Redding has revised its anti-camping ordinance in light of that decision, the fact remains that there is nowhere near enough available shelter for Shasta County’s estimated 750 un-housed individuals, about half of whom can be found camping within city limits at any given point in time. This number is considered a gross underestimate by most local homeless advocates.
In order to create the illusion that there’s enough room in Shasta County’s only homeless shelter, the Good News Rescue Mission near downtown Redding, city officials claim the Mission has never reported exceeding its capacity.
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As I’ve previously written, that’s the exact same argument the city of Boise unsuccessfully made to the Ninth Circuit Court. The court found that the Boise Rescue Mission’s unsubstantiated claim that it never exceeded capacity was dubious.
Furthermore, the court found the mission’s claim was simply company policy set by the Association of Gospel Missions, the umbrella organization that operates dozens of faith-based homeless shelters across the country, including the Boise Rescue Mission and the Good News Rescue Mission in Redding.
The basic idea is there’s always room at the mission—even when there isn’t.
You’d think city officials, when crafting a controversial, potentially unconstitutional ordinance, might have actually examined what the actual capacity of the Good News Rescue Mission is. Yet apparently they didn’t.
Seeking to discover what the Mission’s actual capacity is, I contacted executive director Jonathan Anderson several times. As a precondition to answering any of my questions, Anderson offered me a guided tour of the Mission, which I refused. He has so far not answered my questions, including a detailed email I sent him for this story.
Yet a week after my second story on the Mission, Anderson had no such reservations answering Record Searchlight business reporter David Benda’s questions about the shelter’s capacity.
“What Anderson does know is the Good News Rescue Mission houses 200 to 250 people on any given night,” Benda reported. “The shelter’s capacity is just under 500.”
Benda did the math, which was quite favorable to the city’s plan to enforce the revised ordinance.
“The math says the mission has room for about 250 more people a day, and Anderson estimates there are about 350 individuals who sleep outdoors in Redding each night.”
The only problem with Anderson’s claim is it isn’t accurate.
Mission Capacity: It’s Complicated
According to newly-elected city councilman Michael Dacquisto, Anderson made the same claim, that the Mission has a capacity of 500, when Dacquisto toured the shelter during last year’s campaign.
“As I recall the numbers I gave during the campaign were estimates based on my recollection of numbers provided to me by Jonathan Anderson during a visit to the mission I made during the campaign,” Dacquisto told me in an email. “I was not provided any other numbers at any time or as part of consideration for the recently passed ordinance.”
One may presume his colleagues on the city council were also not provided any numbers on the Mission’s capacity during consideration of the revised ordinance, which was passed unanimously last month.
Seeking the answers I couldn’t get from Anderson—who, as the Mission’s executive director, earns $74,000 annually according to the website Charity Navigator—I contacted the Redding Department of Development and was connected to chief building official Jim Wright.
Determining the Mission’s capacity is “complicated,” Wright explained to my assistant (full disclosure: my assistant is my girlfriend, I was out when he called and provided the numbers below) because it has three buildings which house at least four major programs.
According to Wright, there are two numbers for each of these three buildings. The first figure is the building’s normal capacity and the second is its additional “overflow capacity,” the amount it’s allowed to exceed normal limits when an emergency situation is declared.
“The Mission is operating on a use permit that specifies the allowable number of ‘overflow’ occupants that are safely allowed based on the layout of the buildings and exits, etc.,” Wright explained in an email to me. “They are not suppose to exceed those numbers specified.”
Wright said the Good News Rescue Mission’s main building, which houses men only, has a capacity of 111 and no overflow capacity. Stays here are limited to 30 days, after which the individual must wait 30 days, more often than not on the streets of Redding, before becoming eligible for shelter again.
The Bridge building, also for men only, normally houses 40 male substance abusers in the Mission’s 18-month-long faith-based drug and alcohol recovery program. But fold up the cafeteria chairs and tables and throw mattresses on the floor, and it can house 106 more individuals.
On the homeless women and children side of the equation, the House of Hope offers 80 beds at normal capacity, with an overflow capacity for 20 more individuals. Like the men’s entry-level shelter, the 30-day-in, 30-day-out policy applies here.
Victory House, the Mission’s faith based substance abuse recovery program for women, has a normal capacity of 25 and an additional overflow capacity of 38. It’s worth noting that Anderson predicted both facilities would quickly fill to capacity when they opened in 2017.
What these numbers show is that under normal conditions, when no emergency has been officially declared, the Good News Rescue Mission’s capacity is 256—half of what Anderson told the Record Searchlight. Indeed, Anderson claimed the Mission houses 200 to 250 people per day, which means the Mission is at or near its normal capacity year-round.
Wright estimated that the Good News Rescue Mission’s total capacity including overflow is 400. I did the math, and got a total of 420. It may be possible that Anderson & Co. can pack another 80 individuals into its buildings like sardines to reach the 500 figure, but according to Wright’s numbers, they’d be exceeding their limited overflow capacity.
At any rate, Anderson is citing the higher overflow capacity number not because any emergency has been declared, but to bolster the claim the Mission has never exceeded its capacity, enabling the RPD to ticket homeless campers.
Size Doesn’t Matter?
Seeking further enlightenment on Redding’s revised homeless camping ordinance, I contacted city attorney Barry DeWalt by email, asking if he agreed that the Good News Rescue Mission has a capacity of 500 and has never exceeded its capacity, as Anderson claims.
DeWalt, who crafted the revised ordinance, agreed that the Mission has never exceeded its capacity, but did not know what its actual capacity numbers were. In fact, for the purpose of crafting the ordinance, he said the numbers were irrelevant.
“The capacity of the GNRM [Good News Rescue Mission] did not factor into how I drafted the amendment to the unlawful camping ordinance,” DeWalt said. “First, the ordinance addresses the availability of shelter in a broad sense without reference to the GNRM. At present the GNRM is the only available public shelter, but the ordinance can’t be drafted so its only application is to the GNRM. It has to account for the possibility that other shelter may be operated in the future.”
Fair enough. Someday, a long-sought-after low barrier homeless shelter may actually be constructed in Shasta County, and the revised ordinance has to account for that possibility, however remote it may seem. DeWalt continued:
“Perhaps more importantly, the ordinance has to address its own application in situations where there is available shelter and when there is not. The point of the amendment to the ordinance is to establish that the capacity of the shelter is not the sole factor when one looks at whether shelter is considered available.”
Here, DeWalt is referring to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which found Boise Rescue Mission’s claims that it never exceeds capacity and that its entry level services are entirely secular incredulous. He then lays out the conditions under which an individual may or may not be cited for homeless camping with the revised ordinance.
“Shelter is not available to the individual when the public or private shelters in town do not have capacity, the individual has exhausted a stay limitation established at all available shelters, or there exists a condition at the available shelters where religious observance is required as a condition to shelter. If any of these situations occur, shelter is not available to the individual and there is no violation of this ordinance.
“If none of these three conditions [is] present, the ordinance is applicable and the individual may be cited for a violation of the ordinance.”
While he said the Mission’s capacity wasn’t a factor in revising the ordinance, DeWalt admitted it will play a role in how the revised law is enforced.
“As for whether the capacity of the GNRM justifies ticketing of those who are camping on public property, the answer is that it does but only in part,” he said. “If the GNRM has capacity, but the individual cannot return to the GNRM because he has exhausted his stay limitation, then for that individual shelter is not available.
“If the GNRM has capacity, but it changes its current policy so that religious observance is required as a condition of receiving shelter, then shelter is unavailable to that individual. In both cases, no violation would present.”
Mission Loses Its Religion
Like the Boise Rescue Mission unsuccessfully argued in the Ninth Circuit decision, the Good News Rescue Mission asserts its entry-level shelter services are secular. They include the men’s main shelter and overflow and the House of Hope for women and children and its overflow.
Anderson continues to claim his shelter’s capacity is 500, with an excess of 250 beds available, but the ever-evolving Good News Rescue Mission’s official website tells a different story:
“Our Men’s Shelter and overflow sleep 202 individuals. House of Hope women and children’s shelter can sleep 105.”
That’s a total capacity of 307 men, women and children, all of whom are subject to the 30-day-in, 30-day-out rule—which exists to keep the shelter from becoming overcrowded—as well as rules governing behavior and substance abuse.
The Mission’s website doesn’t state how many people are currently staying in these shelters, but if they’re at or near full capacity, up to 106 men are sleeping on the cafeteria floor, in a cramped building with 40 substance abusers in various states of recovery.
When RPD begins enforcing the revised unlawful camping ordinance, they’ll be asking homeless campers why they aren’t at the Mission. As DeWalt noted, there are a number of legitimate reasons for not staying there. The camper may be on his or her 30-day-out or banned. They may be banned from the Mission for bad behavior.
He or she may also object going to the Mission on religious grounds. While Anderson and DeWalt might disagree, the Ninth Circuit Court didn’t buy the Boise Rescue Mission’s claim that its entry-level services were entirely secular. The Good News Rescue Mission’s claim is equally dubious.
While religious observance isn’t required, Christianity is omnipresent at the Mission, which prides itself as a religious nonprofit organization that accepts private donations only, no government funding. Evening chapel services are conducted before dinner is served. Most of its long-term residents are in faith-based recovery programs.
You can fool all of the people some of the time, but this isn’t one of those occasions.
For one, Redding city council member and Mayor Julie Winter, a Bethel elder, isn’t buying the story that the Mission has lost its religion. On Oct. 18 last year, responding to a question about the topic on the Redding City Club Facebook page (a club she founded) she makes no bones about the Good News Rescue Mission’s religious status:
“My immediate response to this question is two-fold. We need to pressure the County to open a low barrier shelter (a County committee is looking at getting State funding for this). There are people who can not or will not go to the GNRM. The courts have ruled that we can not cite people for illegal camping if there is not a secular shelter that has a bed for them.”
Nevertheless, Winter approved the revised homeless camping ordinance last month, after which she again put the onus on the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, who, rest assured, will get right on creating that new low barrier shelter.
If you believe that, I have some space I’d like to sell you in the Good News Rescue Mission.