Sheltering Shasta County’s ‘Criminal Homeless’

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It appears that what began as a discussion of funding from the State of California to address homeless housing has quickly devolved into yet another discussion of how to increase the number of jail beds in Shasta County.

On February 26, Shasta County’s Housing and Community Actions Program Director, Laura Burch, gave a presentation to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors about the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP), which provides California state funds to local jurisdictions as an emergency response to homelessness. Shasta County Health and Human Services director, Donnell Ewert, spoke next, with a presentation on the proposed “Navigation Center” that would provide “low barrier” sheltering for the homeless. Low-barrier shelters do not make access contingent on requirements such as sobriety, criminal record, and identification. Objections were voiced, and encouragement given, and the BOS moved on with other business, asking Donnell Ewert to return to present again at a later time.

But only a short three months later, it’s Anderson’s Chief of Police, Mike Johnson, and Shasta County District Attorney, Stephanie Bridgett, whose voices seem to be the loudest on the topic. A review of recent Shasta County Board of Supervisors minutes indicates that Bridgett and Jones present a united front on the necessity of integrating a misdemeanor detention facility into any plans for increased homeless sheltering in the county. And they seem to be steering the conversation.

The concept of integrating a new kind of jail into homeless sheltering is a bit ironic considering that the conversation about the creation of a county shelter, particularly a “low barrier” shelter, has been necessitated in part due to a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that it’s a violation of the 8th amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to criminalize the homeless for sleeping outside, unless a viable option for them to sleep inside exists. In the process, news articles highlighted the deficiencies of our area’s current homeless shelter, the Good News Rescue Mission, which, as the name indicates, is faith based. The Good News Rescue Mission does not have adequate capacity for the number of homeless in Shasta County and does not meet typical criteria for a low-barrier shelter.

I say ironic because integrating misdemeanor detention into a low barrier shelter seems inherently contradictory. Won’t making a jail a part of the deal in and of itself introduce a significant barrier to sheltering for the homeless?

But if not a new detention center, then what to do about our “criminal homeless” population, so referred to by DA Bridgett during the May 14, 2019 Board of Supervisors meeting? As I overheard recently, it’s those homeless who are committing misdemeanor crimes that we need to be worried about. The speaker, a local politician who shall remain nameless since this person probably didn’t know I was listening, went on to say that we have to treat the “criminal homeless” population differently than the the rest of the homeless. But how different are they? After all, someone becomes a criminal the moment we prosecute them for:

  • Illegal camping
  • Panhandling
  • Loitering
  • Drinking alcohol in public
  • Urinating in a public place

And the list goes on. So was DA Bridgett, in referring to the “criminal homeless”, talking about those who are criminals BECAUSE they are homeless, and therefore breaking ordinances against sleeping outside, camping in public parks, and loitering? Or is she talking about the those homeless who are wanted for crimes unrelated to their living unsheltered? As we decide how to allocate limited funding for sheltering our homeless population, this question is an important one to answer, because unless we are careful, this is how it will go: First we pass ordinances criminalizing the everyday actions of the transient population. Next we call them the “criminal homeless” and build them a new kind of jail to shelter in, against their wills. This is what is frequently referred to as “criminalizing homelessness”.

The California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council manages the aforementioned HEAP funding for California counties experiencing a “shelter crisis.” They define such a crisis as a situation in which a “significant number of persons are without the ability to obtain shelter, resulting in a threat to their health and safety.” In other words, the crisis is defined by the health and safety needs of the homeless, not those whose “quality of life” is impacted by transients. We do well to keep this in mind.

The term “quality of life crimes” is thought to have first been used during the early ’90s in New York City policing during the Giulianiera. It’s closely related to broken windows theory which advocates that prosecuting minor criminal infractions will help prevent more significant crimes. Anyone who’s left a dish out on the counter and then returned an hour later to find three more dirty dishes on the counter, recognizes the inherent reasonableness of broken windows theory. Yes, leaving things damaged, messy, and unkempt does seem to beget more of the same.

So how do we address the broken window effects that impact the quality of life that matters to everyone; the privileged, the poor and the majority in-between who are affected, perhaps most, by public urination, public drinking, and other “disruptions of the peace?” Those in neighborhoods most affected by Redding’s homeless populations deserve a reasonable quality of life. And so do the homeless.

But how do we get there? Could it be possible that failure to provide adequate, clean and well-cared-for publically available bathrooms in our downtown areas is at least in part responsible for the urination and defecation happening in public? Is it possible that the lack of low barrier sheltering is at least in part responsible for illegal camping? Could we provide better mental health services and responses? Could we provide more reasonable access to a sobering center and rehabilitation services?

And what about Sheriff Tom “We-Need-More-Jail-Beds” Bosenko’s statements, yet again, at recent BOS meetings, that we have inadequate detention facilities to respond to these so-called criminal homeless? Tempting, but with a 27% increase in available Shasta County jail beds in the last year, perhaps it’s time to focus some money and energy on the kind of emergency housing that comes without bars.

Costs per night for low barrier sheltering in Shasta County have yet to be determined, but in Bakersfield, California, the Housing First program costs $12k/person annually. This is in comparison to the $40k the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that it costs society for a person to live on the streets. This is because people who are housed in supportive environments require far fewer expensive police and medical responses than the homeless, reducing their cost to society. Notably it also costs us $40k annually to incarcerate the homeless (or anyone) in the Shasta County Jail.

While the Apostle Paul, and later John Smith of Jamestown, famously stated “he who does not work shall not eat” it was Jesus who, somewhat less famously, said, “the poor you will always have with you”. This is a truth that those of us in Shasta County know well. And because the poor, the transients, will always be with us, we must somehow design a society that’s responsive to them. That finds a way to meet the needs of those who will not work and therefore often do not eat. A way to respond to those whose mental, emotional, and physical health has driven them to the streets or seems to keep them there. And we do this not just for them but for us; because when we respond to the needs of the poor in appropriate and reasonable ways, the quality of life for all will improve.

Or . . . . we can build and operate more jails. Just don’t forget the obvious: we’re paying for homeless housing either way.

Authors Note:

  • Wondering what a low barrier shelter is? Take a peek at this checklist from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, recommended by The US Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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