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Fort Bragg’s Convoluted Hospitality

At the December 9 Fort Bragg City Council meeting, Chief of Police Fabian Lizarraga announced he will be leaving the force effective May 1, 2020. If he stays that long, he will have been on the job for five full years at departure. Previously, Lizarraga spent more than three dozen years with the Los Angeles Police Department, rising to the level of captain.

There were important items elsewhere on the City Council's agenda. Readers might want to check the City of Fort Bragg's website for the 181 page “Comprehensive Annual Finance Report.” Check the table of contents therein for reference to specific pages, such as details on net pension liability (roughly $9 million).

We will get back to the Police Chief, but first we are going to delve into a request from Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center for a bridge loan to finance the opening and operation of a winter shelter for the homeless. The Hospitality Center (HC) has been operating what used to be called the Extreme Weather Shelter (EWS) for a number of years. The opening of the EWS previously depended on a weather criteria for each particular day, based on a percentage of the chance of rain or predicted low night time temperature (usually set at below forty degrees). This fractured schedule led to day to day uncertainty and proved frustrating for homeless folks as well as those responsible with staffing the shelter and/or preparing food for it. This year the shelter is scheduled to be open each and every evening from December 15 through March 15. Faith-based communities have once again volunteered their venues for periods that could extend to two weeks each. By the time this is read, the winter shelter (WS – not World Series, baseball fans) will be at its fortnight long site in Caspar.

Another thing that proved consistently inconsistent year after year: You could pretty much count on Hospitality Center to drag its feet in getting funding for the operation of the shelter. There should be a paid and trained staff member for every dozen homeless people at a given shelter site; over twelve and there ought to be a second paid and trained staff member on site. In addition there should be an equal number of volunteers present, be they from the faith-based community hosting the winter shelter or simply community-minded volunteers. It will be interesting to see if HC meets these standards fully during the next three months, given that the winter shelter will be operating from 4 pm each afternoon until 8 am the following morning. Volunteers need only work four hour shifts at a time while, I believe, paid staff will be on eight hour shifts.

Approximately $66,000 worth of county funding was available to HC as far back as July. The HC leadership, specifically their board of directors' chair, Lynelle Johnson, dragged her feet looking for a single location to house the shelter all winter. The location she wanted was just north of the Main St. car wash in Fort Bragg, one door south rests Starbuck’s, another property southward gets you to the Safeway parking lot. Safeway being the greatest offender, by far, within Fort Bragg, in failing to monitor shoplifting by underage drinkers and shoplifters in general. 

That potential winter long shelter locale would have only increased the problems at Safeway. Why did HC's long time leader want the shelter at that Main Street location? At that spot the shelter would not require a new “Use Permit” from the City of Fort Bragg. To get the permit, HC would have to suffer the indignity of a public hearing at which the local citizenry might utter some hard truths about HC and its sister ship Hospitality House.

So Ms. Johnson dragged the process out. The Main Street location fell through, HC had to go back to the faith-based community to house the shelter on a rotating basis, and lo and behold it was now December and the weather had already turned nasty before Thanksgiving. One church attempted something of an ad hoc shelter for a few dark and stormy nights. One of those evenings, Fort Bragg City Council member Bernie Norvell came by to see what was happening. He ended up staying for several hours to assist one retirement age woman who was attempting to run that shelter on her own with fifteen or more wet, weary, and (some) armed overnighters. One fellow packed a machete and a hatchet into the church. Fortunately, nothing negative came of that. 

Another pair of guests came and went. By all accounts stopping at a bar or liquor store to quench their thirst during the interim. More examples can be provided, but you get the picture. 

More assistance was needed than a lone well-intentioned church leader.

So as December rolled in with more storms the Hospitality Center couldn't open any shelters early because in their own treasurer's words, they didn't have the money. Staffing a shelter, with paid staff and other overhead, costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 per night. HC couldn't afford any extra nights. According to them they couldn't even afford to open on December 15 without a loan. Hence the December 9 City Council decision to loan HC $25,000, interest free. At that meeting, council member Norvell pointed out how HC balked at the money offered back in July and essentially called for another entity to take control of the winter shelter from HC in the future.

Fifth District Supervisor Ted Williams attended that December 9 council meeting in Fort Bragg. The next day the Board of Supervisors, at their meeting in Ukiah, moved to take the onus off the City of Fort Bragg by approving the cutting of a more or less immediate check to HC to fund the start up of the 2019-2020 winter shelter. Reportedly, Fourth District Supervisor Dan Gjerde stated late Tuesday that a check for $33,000 would be sent to HC from the county coffers. On Thursday, HC's treasurer, Jerry Thomas, acknowledged that the organization now had enough money to start the shelter process. Reportedly, HC will get about $66,000 altogether from the county for the entire three month shelter operation. Remember, HC could have had that money in mid-summer.

Getting back to the shoplifting of liquor and the generalized alcohol problem that plagues the transient and homeless population. Harvest Market in the Boatyard shopping center at the south end of Fort Bragg follows a stricter, nearly zero tolerance policy toward liquor shoplifters. The store employees actively check video cameras to identify shoplifters then turn in such offenders to law enforcement for arrest and prosecution. Safeway has reportedly hired a plainclothes security person to be on duty at heightened hours of criminal activity. This has only been going on for a short time so it is too soon to see how effective this one remedy has proven at that store.

At one time a list of folks on active probation for alcohol related crimes was in the hands of merchants in Fort Bragg as a means of curbing easy access to liquor. The use of such a list waned several years back. The current police chief has done nothing to reinstate that sort of list, but rumor is afoot that people in fairly high places are working to re-instate the no-sell alcohol list.

Which brings us to last Thursday, December 12, when yours truly attended the training seminar for people desiring to volunteer at this winter's shelter. The course lasted from 10 am through 3 pm, with about an hour lunch break. The instruction, particularly on specific mental health and substance abuse issues proved at the minimum a valuable reminder.

Each potential shelter volunteer filled out a basic application form. In addition, HC asked for a signature on a “release from liability” form, which takes all legal responsibility off HC if something drastic happens to a volunteer. After the training was completed, I told Ms. Johnson, her vice chair, Carole White, and HC's executive director, Carla Harris, that I still wanted to volunteer, but wouldn't be signing such a form. When I said that the wording of the liability form implied that HC did not possess adequate insurance to cover serious injury to a volunteer, there was no response to indicate otherwise.

HC also asks volunteers to sign a confidentiality agreement. One of the demands of this form states that even the conversation of a volunteer is the property of Hospitality Center. Clearly this document was nothing less than a non-disclosure agreement aimed at committing anyone working or volunteering at the winter shelter to utter silence ever after. I pointed out the unacceptable nature of this document to Ms. Johnson and Ms. Harris after Ms. White waved a hand at it saying, “Looks standard to me.”

Ms. Johnson gave her usual schmooze about being glad I'd brought questions to her attention. Based on past performance, this is what Ms. Johnson does when someone points out the error of her ways. She says something mildly soothing in response then does whatever she pleases. Ms. Harris at least acknowledged that some of the confidentiality form's wording might need changing. I informed them that I would be writing about the forms in newsprint.

On December 14, the day before the official opening of the coastal winter shelter, the weather turned wet and cold once more. Grace Community Church in Fort Bragg opened its doors for the homeless. Harvest Market gave food. Mayor Will Lee was on hand to help serve dinner around 7:30 pm. Folks like John Lain and Richard Mack went out into the rain to find individuals who could use the one night shelter. At least one pickup truck was volunteered to transport belongings to the church. Judy Valadao, of Fort Bragg, proved a valuable source of information coordination. Folks volunteered to oversee the operation all night into Sunday morning, when Starbucks provided a morning treat.

One of the few long time Fort Bragg homeless spotted at the temporary shelter back on Thanksgiving weekend didn't make it to the church on Saturday, December 14. On Sunday morning, he was found dead in a parking lot in the town's central business district. Police and court records indicate his lengthy history of alcohol-related arrests. Councilman Norvell commented, “Further justification for the alcohol list.”

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