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If You Build It, They Will Come

Will opening a homeless shelter in downtown Fort Bragg help the homeless population or address the problems associated with homelessness in Fort Bragg? The idea reminds me of a quote from an old movie called Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." That certainly is what has happened in other cities. The more shelters they build, the more homeless there are that still do not fit into those shelters and just simply overflow on to the streets. As a police officer for more than a quarter decade, I have seen it with my own eyes.

I was born and raised in Fort Bragg. I went to high school here, graduated from College of the Redwoods and worked for Fort Bragg Police Department for several years back in the 80’s. As a police officer, I interacted with our homeless population more than a few times. Back then, most of them were locals. Most of them were harmless. There were always a few “homeless tourists” who would drift through town, usually in the summer when the weather more easily allowed sleeping outdoors. It wasn’t until I moved out of the area that I saw what a real homeless problem looks like.

In my new city you will find homeless people sleeping in outcroppings of bushes, under bridges and other “hidden places.” You will also find them sleeping out in the open on the sidewalks in downtown. When I say downtown, I mean right in front of City Hall, right in front of some of the busiest stores and office complexes. Sure, there are lots of rural areas for them to populate, but downtown has a particular draw: homeless shelters and related services. And so, local businesses now contract (for a fee in addition to their city, state and federal taxes) with a local entity called “Downtown Clean and Safe” to try to make downtown just that, clean and safe. Others get the job of cleaning up the area, hosing down sidewalks and business doorways to try to remove the stench of human urine and the like.

It seems when an area is developed as a magnet for the homeless population, it does just that: it becomes a magnet. Not only are local homeless people drawn to the area, but soon word travels outside the town’s borders that there is an area where you can get a free place to sleep and a free meal. Soon, homeless from around the country arrive. The shelters overflow, and now we end up with full shelters and even more people sleeping on the sidewalks. It probably sounds like I am exaggerating. I wish I was.

Some cities end up with large numbers of “street kids.” These bands of young people are a mix of largely out of town homeless who feel they should not have to abide by the “corrupt laws” of society. Many have traveled from other states after hearing about the plethora of services available. So they leave home, refuse to work and get by through begging for money, taking government handouts, and sometimes through criminal activity. They form their own gangs, create their own lingo and find ways to get money to buy things the government does not provide, such as alcohol, drugs and the like. Of course if you attract a group of people who have a higher than average drug use rate, you will also attract drug dealers to that area.

So we build homeless shelters out of good and pure intention to help the homeless and address homelessness in our area and what is the result? More homelessness, more crime, a less attractive business core, the need to spend more business money to make the area look and smell like there is not a homeless problem. But there is. And it keeps growing, and we keep building, and they keep coming. So we allocate a large parcel of property outside the downtown core. We call it “Dignity Village” and tell the homeless to make their homes there. And they do. They put up a tent city which fills to capacity and then more people come, and the shelters overflow, and the sidewalks again become their beds. Now we have more mouths to feed, more health care issues for our local hospitals to address (for free) and more crime to address. What I am describing is not scarry fiction. It an unfortunate reality which I have seen play out before my own eyes.

I say all of this not to imply the homeless population is undeserving of help. Quite the contrary. We are not a civilized society if we do not care for those who are less fortunate and unable to care for themselves. Unfortunately, it is by trying to be civilized, kind and well-intended that we make the problem worse for the homeless and for our towns. We assume most homeless people are “less fortunate” or “unable to care for themselves” when that is not necessarily the case. We have developed a culture of entitlement and an entire subculture of opportunistic feeders who know how to play on the emotions of our good hearted citizens. They devour the scarce resources we cobble together, meant to help those who actually want to get off of the streets.

If we want to address the homeless problem, we shouldn’t make it easier to be homeless. We should address the reasons individuals are homeless. And the reasons truly are individual. Some are homeless out of choice. Let them chose to be homeless somewhere else. Buy them bus tickets back home and let their hometowns care for them if they want to. Don’t offer services for the homeless tourist. For some the reasons for their homelessness are related to mental illness. Develop strategies to get them assistance specific for their illness. For some the reasons are economic. Help them find jobs. Yes, give them an address to receive mail (such as a post office box) and a place to wash their cloths, etc. Maybe for those few a temporary home is needed. Look around the nation, however, at the places where the government allocated a specific area for those living off of government handouts. Are the businesses thriving around those areas? Is crime lower in those areas or higher? Would you want to live there or even invest money there?

Let’s do what is right. Let’s find ways to care for others. But let’s be thoughtful and deliberate in our efforts. We must learn from others who have gone before us and learn from their successes and failures. The last thing we want to do is spend valuable resources and personal effort to end up only making things worse for those we are trying to help. Building a homeless shelter in downtown Fort Bragg would be a mistake. It would degrade an already struggling downtown business core, create a drain on scarce resources, and draw more out of town homeless who will only compound the original problem.


  1. Vicky Miller February 5, 2015

    I was born and raised in Fort Bragg also. I returned after many years and am disgusted by what has happened to this town! The people in charge are idiots and only care about what they want, not what is best for the citizens! I live on Oak Street and cannot tell you how bad it is with the homeless who frequent the church on McPherson Street and then come into the alley behind my home to smoke meth, relieve themselves, etc. It is disgusting and NO ONE CARES!! There is a RECALL in the works which will make a large difference in the way things are run in Fort Bragg!!

  2. Alice chouteau February 5, 2015

    This is such a powerful essay, written from his personal experience. Sadly, our mayor is so driven by the desire to stay in the grant game, he doesnt care what the majority wants, nor is he interested in learning from what has occured in other towns and cities.
    He believes, that once elected, he alone is the Decision Maker, as he stated at the last council meeting, and sees no reason for citizens’ advisory committees or giving sufficient notification for the public to be prepared to speak up.
    The fact the Coast Hotel will be treating the mentally ill homeless, including sex offenders, means this project is inappropriate in Fort Bragg. mayor Turner should read this essay.

  3. Marissa Colombi February 6, 2015

    OMG! Vicky how dare you ever talk about our supreme leaders in such a manner. Don’t you know you could be banished to hell for doing such a thing! Heaven forbid that you have a mind of your own! What is really sad is many people in Fort Bragg are sick and tired of how Fort Bragg is being run but they are also scared to speak out for fear of repercussion from the city. Very sad day in our country and our town when people feel like they do not have a choice or a voice. I thought we were living under a democracy but maybe I was mistaken? Who knows maybe one day we will wake up to see all the empty stores downtown filled with fake store fronts.

  4. Judy Valadao February 6, 2015

    Turner will argue that this IS NOT a homeless shelter. Anna Shaw will argue that the rooms upstairs are transitional housing “families will be living there”. Mark Montgomery will say the mentally ill could housed there he will also say that sex offenders could be housed there BUT they can make their own rules and wouldn’t allow that. Ortner (Mark Montgomery’s boss) got millions of dollars to be used for the mentally ill. How is it that this has become a mentally ill, transitional house issue? Our Council has made the comment that “people are so happy with their decisions” that they don’t come to meetings. May I enlighten them? People haven’t been coming to the meetings because they had given up and knew they didn’t have a chance in hell in changing anyone’s opinion on the Council. Well, Council Members the community has awaken and now realize there is something they can do. This community is not asleep, they are awake and they are speaking up and coming to meetings. Are you listening to them and really paying attention? No, and your last decision proved that, but if you think for one minute they are going away you are wrong. The community is united and we are here to stay. Are you here to stay??

  5. Gringo February 7, 2015

    Ok, I have never commented here but feel this article needs to be addressed.

    I immediately notice that Mr. Troy King speaks of his time in the Ft.Bragg police dept as being “more than a quarter decade” (?) and again “several years”. Does he mean more than 2.5 years? Does “several” mean three? Would anyone qualify that as having real experience in any career at 3 or even four years? Would I as a chef for ten years be qualified to speak about food policy? He’s really giving quite a stretch to his credibility on the issue.

    “Sure, there are lots of rural areas for them to populate” Like where, the national forest? Is there some common land where they can raise food? Mr. King, try to recover some unused land the city has and see if the police don’t come and kick you off with brute force, look at how community gardens that used to exist in cities were shut down. I’m not sure what utopia of fertile land exist for youth with no resources to “populate”? Well experienced farmers in this county with resources cant even make it here with our unbelievable land prices. I could go on about how disconnected this statement is from reality. ps… I’d say the people at City Hall should be precisely the ones who have to look at the failures of our society in the face, especially in major cities.

    “Street kids” that form their own “gangs” and lingo? This is typical right wing rhetoric to frame our youth in this economy and crumbling educational structure with no healthcare as “gangs” and those that don’t fit the dominate narrative of society as criminals. This entire paragraph points the finger at the the most vulnerable of our society and frames them so that folks really think they have a good home that they “leave” so they can refuse to work and become criminals. How many of these kids have abusive homes and no access to any future? I’m not excusing this demographic outright but will not allow someone to frame our brothers and sisters this way as it is disingenuous at best. pps…. If we wanna talk about “gangs” that use “lingo” who don’t feel like they need to obey the law then lets talk about cops…… Yeah.

    Here’s the big kicker folks,
    “We should address the reasons individuals are homeless, and the reasons TRULY ARE INDIVIDUAL.” REALLY?!? Unbelievable bud, I would encourage you to perhaps consider that there are structural reasons why people are homeless in this country, it has to do with Wall Street(ya know,”those that have developed a culture of entitlement and an entire subculture of opportunistic feeders”, Bank of America/Wells Fargo kicking people out of their homes illegally, not having a health care system, outrageous college tuition (that I was in no way able to afford despite being in academically gifted classes), an abysmal high school educational system with high dropout rates, a for profit prison industrial complex that looks at our children as opportunity for profit…..the list goes on and this doesn’t even touch on social ills like abuse and unloving/broken homes.

    America and the smaller parts within it need to put on the big boy pants and ask why billions of dollars of aid goes to dictatorships instead of our own cities, trillions go to illegal wars while our society falls apart and why rugged american individualist and “bootstrap” types cant even begin to question our economic system, why mental health institutions closed under Reagan, nor the rosy image that the US is a place of equality and opportunity with a little hard work, but have no problem simplifying and blankly labeling the marginalized communities that suffer from our grotesque inequality. ppps…. Your constant references to business and investment show your value system and it ain’t about people

    This isn’t some rant from a bleeding heart liberal but from someone of privilege in our society who took the time to work with the homeless in Skid Row LA and other areas and wants to find the true reasons and solutions to the issue of homelessness. Also someone who knows how difficult it is to get a good education and that we are due for another economic collapse that will put many thousands more on the streets and fill the pockets of the rich. Also I have personally seen the abject violence that the police use on poor and homeless people to “clean up” an area to renew business and have seen the private security forces they hire to do the dirty work the city wont do. I also know that homeless people are set on fire by vigilantes and beaten up for no reason. The intolerance is not just with police though they are the enforcers of business as usual.

    Mendocino def has an issue that is not entirely its own making but if you want to solve an issue there needs to be a vast amount more of understanding on the issue than this author has. I am not saying all cops are bad and all homeless innocent victims but lets start framing things in their proper light shall we.

    I could give my opinions about why shelters don’t work when they get grants by keeping beds full instead of how many folks they move back into society but I’ve gone on long enough.

    I hope the AVA will stop fanning the flames of business class discontent and next time they have a front page article on an important social issue they will use something from someone who has even a small knowledge of the subject matter and can look beyond their immediate perception of the world.


    • Alice chouteau February 8, 2015

      Hi Gringo
      I think you should have the courtesy to write under your own name instead of hiding behind a pseudonym.
      It undermines everything you have to say.

      • Gringo February 11, 2015


        It is the height of intellectual dishonesty to look for reasons to discount what someone is saying because they use a nickname which is very common on most list serves and I think more than a few folks in this county go by Feather, Yarrow, and Moonbeamwhateverhaveyoutypestuff. If you want to talk about courtesy then use some yourself and be an example. Ask my name if you’d like it, I’d gladly give it to you.

        Now if you’d like to debate the things I wrote here than please do. This article is a joke written by someone who can’t look outside of their own world view or even do a bit of research on how and why people are really homeless.

        Look forward to your response.


        William Christopher Jackson

  6. Bruce Anderson February 8, 2015

    For the record, for many years the AVA has agitated for a county farm, a proposal taken seriously by the Sheriff, for example, and a proposal that has elicited at least one offer of land to put it on (near Piercy). Mendocino County has a core population of drunks and incompetents who are rotated in and out of the justice system many times a year. The problem we have with the entire Ortner privatization strategy is (1) it only addresses and deals with the tractable homeless, the state and federally reimbursed homeless, which is how Ortner makes his money, lots of money which would be far more productively and humanely spent on a permanent county farm.

  7. Judy February 8, 2015

    The community of Fort Bragg is united and it is a sorry day when those who are supposed to be listening to the tax payers and voters of this town are not listening or hearing us, by choice. This is only one issue but there are many more and they will be addressed. How can Turner, Deitz or Hammerstrom call themselves representatives of this community when they are talking out their backsides trying to explain why they voted in favor of this project. I would suggest they try explaining to the community why they refuse to listen to them. I think this goes much deeper than we know but if the Council thinks we are going away they are so very wrong. We are growing in numbers and we are here to stay. The Council has made it’s decision and the community has made their decision. This was a done deal from the beginning and everyone knows it. The question is “Why”. Why is the City so hell bent on catering to the wishes of a few? So they can apply for even more grants to expand? Why do they continuously apply for grants we don’t want and don’t need? M-O-N-E-Y that’s why. It’s not about helping anyone, it’s all about the money.

    • Alice Chouteau February 8, 2015

      Thank you Judy, for once again being a voice of clarity and reason.. I guess the 3 stooges on our council didn’t get to the part of their job description that reads ‘public servant’.
      And I concur–this project is strictly grant-driven, by a mayo with dollar signs in his eyes
      who fears losing his place in the acquisition game. Thats what its all about, sadly, not about representing the wishes of the majority of residents, or in unbiased research and serious consideration of the negative future effects of their grant funded projects.
      Macdowell made one good point in his remarks–the Ortner Group, for $8,000,000 annually from county taxpayers, needs to ensure that the chronically addicted and those prone to violence be placed in lockdown mental facilities, for the sake of public safety.
      Our police are overwhelmed by the problem, and our volunteer fire department will have trouble in the coming fire season, with the likelihood of wildfires from the many homeless encampments in the brush and woods around town and up the rivers.
      I hope to see the concerned public out in force at tomorrow’s City Council meeting, 6pm at the Diederich center on Dana St.

  8. Jesse Dugger February 9, 2015

    First of all homeless shelters do not create or facilitate homelessness. Second the entities who manage the homeless services already available in your community do currently do an effective job at keeping those services from being accessed by out of towners, I know this from first hand experience as a mental health worker who has a real need to access these services for clients. I also lived in Fort Bragg for about a year, back in 2001, and I wasn’t homeless (not exactly anyway and I was a homeless youth prior to and after that time) but I did spend a lot of time with some of the local chronically homeless people who camped out and slowly drank themselves toward ugly lonely painful deaths. Your town has a homeless problem and to blame more services for the existing problem especially without giving another adequate solution is ludicrous. As for this idea that a homeless shelter will somehow manufacture homelessness… Wow just wow… Its like you think that you build a homeless shelter and people will just quit their jobs and leave their stable lives and homes so they can collect a handouts and become the scum parasites that people like you look down on. That notion, however you want to couch it, clothed in well articulated words polished and bathed in an air practical, experiential and well reasoned wisdom, is wrong.

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