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HumCo Considers Homeless “Villages”

Humboldt County supervisors are looking at the possibility of establishing a shelter village for homeless people but they expect churches and community groups to be the main organizers.

The potential of expanding the county’s homeless shelter opportunities was discussed at the Jan. 28 Board of Supervisors meeting. Supervisor Virginia Bass and Board Chairman Rex Bohn are on the county’s Homeless Task Force and Bass introduced a 30-minute video documentary on shelter villages that have been set up in Santa Cruz, Eugene & Portland, Oregon and Olympia, Washington.

She said doing something similar in Humboldt is being talked about with some caution. “I think we have to look at the options and it’s always good to look at what other communities are doing,” she continued. “But I will also say that this (video) will only point out the positives — it doesn’t go into the negatives, which I think, when we do get around to moving in a direction, we certainly have to look at.”

The documentary chronicles a videographer’s journey through various villages in the northwest, including Opportunity Village in Eugene, Dignity Village in Portland and Camp Quixote in Olympia. All offer tent or house-like shelters for homeless people who participate in village work and communal activities. The villages are portrayed as being safe, clean and problem-free.

During a public comment session, John Shelter of the New Directions homeless assistance program told supervisors that if they want ideas on sheltering, they can find them locally.

“I have proposals out there for a campground that I’ve been fishing around with many of you guys for two years now,” he said, adding that it would be “a transitional campground where people would be put in a safe place.”

Shelter said an encampment would give people a stable temporary living situation while they look for work and conventional housing.

Earlier, supervisors had talked about facilities like the Betty Chinn Day Center in Eureka, which is a collaborative project with the Catholic Charities Diocese of Santa Rosa. Supervisors agreed that an encampment village would be more feasible as a community-based project rather than one sponsored by government.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell said the issue of homelessness has “brought people of faith together” in Southern Humboldt and churches “tend to have more resources.” Community groups should be the organizers of a communal village but government can help by being flexible, she added.

“Safety is so codified that it’s almost impossible to do something like all these examples within the governmental structure,” Fennell said. “There is a way that — especially cities, probably — can handle this by thinking outside of the box and allowing things.”

In the video, city governments were described as being cooperative but not the lead agencies creating the “mini-structure” villages. The video had also been presented to the Eureka City Council. Bass also said that a homeless village may be better placed in a city setting rather than the county’s unincorporated area.

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