As we wake up to Old Man Winter’s icy mornings to pull on our coats, hats, and gloves to scrape the overnight ice off our windshields, the issue of the county’s homeless naturally grows more urgent, as it does around this time every year. Different groups with vested interests or divergent philosophies take up their usual, unsurprising positions: businesses fret over a loss of revenue over the lucrative holiday season as homeless residents crowd the sidewalks (and presumably discourage downtown shopping); churches marshal their flocks to serve meals and, in some cases, provide extra beds for those with nowhere else to lay their heads; liberals cluck impotently over the unfairness of it all while hardliners mutter about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; helping professionals hired to do something about this intractable, seemingly endless problem dig in to estimate the depth of the problem and what it will cost the county to at least stick a finger in the dyke as they prepare their PowerPoint presentations and public-ready updates, and hospitals and law enforcement, respectively, brace for more emergency room visits and more arrests for vagrancy, violence, drugs, alcohol and the many other social and legal ills connected with living outside on the streets in the depths of winter.
What’s a city to do?
Ukiah’s Inland Winter Shelter on South State Street, operated by Redwood Community Services, Inc., doesn’t look anything like it did the last time I visited in the early spring of 2018. It was pretty bare bones back then with none of the showers, laundry, Day Center (which opened August 6), and other amenities that today provide a safe, more comprehensive gathering place off the streets.
In its early days, the shelter was basically one big room where our homeless relatives, friends, and fellow Mendo residents slept during the coldest months of the year.
On one of those recent cold, late December days when I visited the shelter, 46 “guests” (the preferred reference to the homeless individuals staying there) had slept in the shelter dormitory the night before. According to the latest stats that Homeless Housing Manager Sage Wolf shared with me (for October), 100 visited the Day Center, 40 took showers, and 30 did their laundry.
Though the numbers had not yet been tabulated when I visited, Wolf told me that November’s numbers were higher. There’s no kitchen yet, per se, though there are toasters and microwaves where guests can cobble together mostly non-perishable foods when not taking meals at Plowshares across the street or at churches and other local places where meals are prepared for people living on the streets who have nowhere and nothing to eat.
A recent addition to the dozen or so full- and part-timers who make up the shelter staff, Lead Peer Support Counselor Dan Twyman, has worked at the shelter for about a year and a half; he moved to Ukiah from Tennessee with his wife so she could accept a teaching position at the college.
Irrepressibly cheerful and upbeat and speaking in a soft, lilting southern accent, he said that, compared with last year, the shelter is running much more smoothly with its expanded facilities and services. “Last year we had a lot of tension because we had such limited services,” he said. “A lot of people come in with walkers, or on crutches. We also deal with a lot of people in some state of intoxication.”
Twyman said the goal is to keep the homeless off the streets and connect them with other services like counseling or housing, and to basically keep them out of the hospital and out of jail. He added that reaching this goal is difficult when individuals have drug addictions. “This is Meth Country,” he said, “and meth addicts are not fun to watch.”
Despite these difficulties Twyman said that helping others is a calling for him. “I really like working with people who are struggling,” he said. He stressed that no cookie-cutter description fits Mendo’s local homeless folk, and that the county’s housed residents need to resist black-and-white thinking. “Many people right on the edge have moved from lower middle class to homelessness,” he told me. “Once you’re off the map you start losing resources and you end up sleeping outside in the bushes. It doesn’t take much to end up homeless in America these days.”
Like, for instance, shelter guest Charletta Lemmons, known to everyone as Pepper.
Pepper, who has neither substance abuse issues nor mental illness, became homeless after a hefty rent hike she couldn’t afford; she ended up sleeping under the Ford Street Bridge until last July, when she moved to the shelter. Impeccably dressed and articulate, if you saw Pepper on the street you’d assume she was a secretary or some other member of the legions of office workers in downtown Ukiah. She lives at the shelter at night and babysits her toddler grandbaby during the day so her son Jeffrey can go to his fulltime job at Applebee’s. He lives with his young daughter at the Ford Street project where Pepper said she’s not allowed to live with them. “I can’t jeopardize his housing situation,” she said.
She clearly regrets the choices she made many years ago as a young mother. “There was a time when I wasn’t there for him,” she said, quickly wiping away tears. “I was selfish and I make up for it every day.” She, like Twyman, said there’s no one-size-fits-all for those who find themselves homeless and living on the streets.
“Some of us weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths, some of us were born as welfare children,” she said. “I have children who were welfare children…but who aren’t welfare people. They have jobs and homes.”
Depressingly, one thing never changes from year to year: there’s just nowhere to live around here. Housing is the Catch-22 sticky wicket that just won’t go away. In addition to the uphill battle the homeless face from bad or non-existent credit, no stable place to live, poverty, and often a history of either addiction or legal problems (all captured forever in integrated computer systems just a keyboard click away for potential landlords (and employers), in the words of recent protestors around California, “The rent is too damned high.” Lack of housing, in all of its quirky manifestations, is a major heartache for Sage Wolf and the one thing she would change if she were granted just one wish. “We’re trying to scrounge up apartments all the time,” she said. And she said it’s especially discouraging for those who spend months qualifying for Housing Choice vouchers (formerly Section 8 or, simply, HUD vouchers), which expire after a few months so that when applicants can’t secure housing they have to start the whole, lengthy application process all over again. She said that some landlords use the federal voucher dollar limit, which is based on an area’s average rent, as tools to freeze out applicants by charging rent just slightly above what the voucher will pay. In Mendo that amount is currently $1,050, a hard figure that can’t be negotiated, for a two-bedroom apartment.
Even with a sliding scale that determines how much HUD will kick in for rent, Wolf said that few homeless applicants can afford rent that high. Saying that a new rent stabilization law taking effect the first of the year could be “a game changer” in forcing landlords to accept housing vouchers or face charges of discrimination, Wolf said she’s optimistic that the new law will help.
A quick review of that law, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, suspiciously unopposed by landlord associations, contains some all-too-familiar red flags. First of all, like Dianne Feinstein’s hard-fought assault weapons ban, the new housing law has a sunset date – in this case 10 years. Secondly, it’s called “stabilization” instead of “control” because it mandates a rent “cap” with a rolling calendar. The way it works is that rents can go up 5% every year, plus inflation. Cities that already have rent caps can keep them if they meet this standard. In the case of Los Angeles, for example, cited in several news articles on the new law, this translates into an 8% rent increase every year. Lower, to be sure, than some of the more egregious run-away hikes we’ve seen in the recent past, but consider: The non-profit California Policy Center released a study comparing average annual wage increases in California in recent years. It’s 2% for private-company employees (government employees earn twice as much to begin with). Sooo…if your rent goes up 8% every year (each increase based on the higher amount set the year before) or thereabouts and you’re getting a 2% salary increase, how many years will it take to get priced out of the housing market — again? Plus rentals built within the past 15 years are exempt from the new rent cap (supposedly to stimulate recent developers to keep on building, a dubious assumption).
And the coup de grace: landlords who kick you out without cause now have to compensate you – for a whopping one month’s rent! What a deal! And who will enforce any of this for the state’s nearly 9-million renters? Hey, we all know that many laws evolve over time and I hate to be a niggling pessimist, but this one is blazing with red flags, at least in my view after reading about it.
Back at the shelter, it remains to be seen how all this will shake out. Life goes on, space is expanding to provide shelter for even more guests, and counselors and other staffers keep plugging away at employment possibilities and helping Ukiah’s homeless navigate the maze of bureaucratic systems that could help them re-enter the employed, housed world.
Wolf, who’s been in the Mendo shelter trenches for six years, says that she tries to focus on all the good the shelter and its staff do every day and every night. “You can get into this place where you feel helpless and hopeless, that we’re never going to be able to do enough,” she said. But as she reflected on all the ways that the shelter’s homeless guests network and support one another in ways large and small, she said, “In that way, they are more connected than housed people. People in this [homeless] community have big hearts.”