Don’t Blame Winter; Chief Johnson Had the Idea First

Feb. 27 Homeless Shelter Discussion at the Redding Library. Photo from Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency.

Redding City Councilwoman Julie Winter has been getting plenty of negative press, but I think it’s time we even out the blame a little. After all, she wasn’t the first in Shasta County to come up with the idea of using a jail to shelter the homeless.

Let me start from the middle. Winter got national attention in the last few weeks after she — as then-Redding mayor —  wrote a letter to Governor Newsom asking for his financial support to address homelessness. She presented the letter to the Redding City Council for their vote on November 19 and it was unanimously approved; no questions asked and no edits made.

But it was Winter’s follow up words, spoken during a JPR interview later last week, that really captured everyone’s attention. Speaking about a homeless facility she’d like Governor Newsom to designate emergency funding for she said:

“That might be a low-security facility, but it’s not a facility you could just leave because you wanted to. You need to get clean, you need to get sober, you need to demonstrate self-sufficiency. And once you do that, you’re free to go.”

A shelter that you’re not allowed to leave? Sounds a lot like a jail. Which is exactly why Winter’s words garnered national attention in the form of a Vice article, and why homeless advocates are up in arms. But have we already forgotten how recently this very same idea was touted by other officials in Shasta County?

I’ve written about this before. Hearken back to February 26, 2019, a mere nine months ago, when Donnell Ewert, head of Shasta County Health and Human Services (HHS) first proposed the Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that would serve hard-to-reach adults in Shasta County. The Board of Supervisors (BOS) agreed at that time that funding from the State’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program program (money already provided by Governor Newsom to address the emergency of homelessness) would be accepted by the County, with the idea that the money could possibly be used for a low-barrier shelter. The idea was endorsed by many, including the director of the Shasta Community Health Center and the director of Empire Recovery Center, two organizations serving some of the most high-need and, at times, resistant, populations in the County. Supervisors Chimenti and Rickert were put in charge of an Ad Hoc committee on the topic.

But in a series of follow-up meetings running through May, Ewert’s idea for a low-barrier shelter quickly lost traction. Anderson Police Chief Michael Johnson strongly opposed the idea on the grounds that it would enable poor behavior among the homeless. He presented a proposal calling for the Navigation Center to be “paired with a transitional rehabilitation facility operated by law enforcement and targeted at low-level misdemeanor and quality of life crimes.” That’s right: a paired shelter/jail for the homeless. Credit where due: Mike Johnson, Anderson’s Chief of Police, was the first to think of the homeless shelter you’re not allowed to leave.

Julie Winter, being affiliated with Bethel, is easier to crucify.

And others were quick to follow. District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett agreed that no low-barrier shelter should be built “unless implemented with an enforcement component.” Sheriff Bosenko also supported Johnson’s ideas, as did Erin Resner, Redding City Council member. And then, just like that, the BOS voted to hire an architect to propose designs and to direct staff to look into costs associated with Johnson’s proposed shelter/jail.

That was the beginning of the end for HHS’s low-barrier shelter plan; a plan that lost engines before it even got off the ground, despite a year of planning. In May, Ewert came back to the Board reporting he hadn’t found private funding to support his project, and that he was now encountering community opposition. He proposed using the Homeless Emergency Aid Funding from the state for two homeless housing mini centers, essentially group residential homes close to the Mission instead, as a proof-of-concept for bigger ideas.

The BOS appeared to agree. They voted to spend State HEAP funds on these mini centers. And they reiterated to DA Bridgett and HHS’s Ewert that any ongoing plans for the Navigation Center should be considered only as part of a paired shelter/jail.

And that seems to be the last the public has heard of the low-barrier shelter planned by HHS Director Donnell Ewert for Shasta County’s homeless.

For an update, I reached out to Health and Human Services. I was informed by Tim Mapes, Community Education Specialist from HHS, that “Stephanie Bridgett from the DA’s office is the point person for the Navigation Center.”

Despite my surprise that the DA’s office would manage a homeless housing project, I dutifully called them next, informing them that I had been sent by HHS to learn more about the Navigation Center. Denise from the DA’s office directed me right back to HHS stating: “Donnell Ewert  . . .  is in charge of the Navigation Center.”

Hmmm. Surely the Supervisors would know something? I reached out to Rickert and Chimenti, members of the Ad Hoc committee created to help guide the BOS with regard to the Navigation Center. Supervisor Rickert responded, expressing disappointment that the shelter had turned into a “transitional rehabilitation center” project and suggesting I speak to Mr. Ewert at HHS for updates. I never heard back from Chimenti.

Keep in mind that HHS’s proposed low-barrier shelter would have remedied Redding’s lack of appropriate sheltering; the very lack Winter is referring to in her letter to Newsom when she states the City has “limited to no ability to prohibit and/or prevent illegal camping.” That’s true, and it’s because by court precedent it’s illegal to incarcerate people for sleeping outside if you don’t offer them appropriate and accessible alternatives. Her letter continues: “The city has mental health services, a mobile mental health services unit, shelter, and substance abuse programs available that are underutilized or remain empty.”

Underutilized? Yes, because they aren’t accessible and appropriate. In other words, Winter says, you didn’t want to meet the standards of the shelter we offered you, so we’ll keep you in another shelter by force. Or, as my husband, who spent 23 years in the Navy likes to say, “Beatings will continue until morale improves!”

Winter’s letter also states that the homeless “routinely decline shelter, services or treatment.” But really, given Redding’s lack of an accessible low-barrier shelter, this seems rather like stating that ones children routinely decline food when all you ever offer them is boiled liver and onions.

Her letter adds that programs for the mentally ill, substance addicted, and/or homeless aren’t well utilized “despite vigorous outreach.”

Does this “vigorous outreach” mainly involve the police “making contact” with our homeless citizens? Because if so, we may have found our reason why “vigorous outreach” has had similar results to the aforementioned beatings. Morale has not improved. In my experience, many people living outside are a lot like children; difficult to reason with and stubborn as hell. This is probably because, for many, their adverse childhood experiences have left them stuck in a far earlier developmental stage, unable to reason in the ways many of us want them to.

But, even if APD Chief Johnson did think of it first, Winter’s intent to jail the homeless seems particularly strange, given her other hat as Bethel Church elder. One can only assume her goal for Redding is synonymous with Bethel’s tagline: “on earth as it is in heaven.” And are we really saying that in heaven, broken, hurting people are manning up and taking responsibility, so it’s about time we expected the same here?

So, Mike Johnson first proposed the idea of using a jail to shelter the homeless. Likewise, Bridgett, Bosenko and Resner all got on board with the idea of jailing the homeless to shelter them months before Winter made it famous. As a County we’ve even previously taken state emergency funds for housing the homeless, we’ve just had a difficult time agreeing on how to use it without being “too soft” on our most vulnerable.

Since “quality of life” (read: homeless) issues are one of our biggest public safety expenses in Redding, why have there been no discussions of using our new public safety tax to help fund a low-barrier shelter? This would facilitate moving them off the streets legally, thereby resolving some of the most time-consuming and morale-busting activities of our local law enforcement, right?

Oh, never mind, we’re planning on saving our local sales tax monies to fund the our main jail. Meanwhile we’re hoping Governor Newsom will send more money from state taxes to fund our small emergency back-up jail . . . I mean shelter . . . . I mean “transitional rehabilitation center”.

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

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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