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Court Ruling: Homeless Camp Alternative?

In the half-dozen homeless camps on the outskirts of Fort Bragg there were no fires on Christmas Eve. Any light might attract the attention of the cops. The raids come without warning, in intermittent unannounced assaults, cops and backhoes, teams of publicly-funded helping agencies, and batteries of dumpsters, all of it coordinated by the City Development Department, marshaled in recent months to systematically uproot local homeless encampments one by one, hauling off mountains of trash and driving the destitute and the addicted ever deeper into the woods.

As the December rain falls on our sleepy, warm city, the violent and the addicted, the mentally challenged, and the gentle souls who live among them are swept indiscriminately from their tents and tarps, as the inevitable trash heaps present an unvarnished picture of Paleolithic survival in a violent underground world of rape and robbery. And rain. But still preferable to submission to an institutional authority that many if not most homeless people distrust even more than the dangerous damp darkness.

Hospitality Center. For many of the local homeless, there is no choice at all. A single incident, a misspoken word, a single angry moment or any complaint to the cops, regardless of whether a citation is issued, is sufficient to put a person on the City's “banned list.” Individuals placed on the list are excluded from all City services, including the emergency winter shelter, and even from the basically inedible once a day meal provided by Hospitality House. A recent cart de jour included cold mashed potatoes elegantly complemented with a few cold green beans.

For many if not most homeless people hostility to the homeless has always been a given at Hospitality Center with their deep-rooted apathy and indifference. Contempt for the clients is even worse at their satellite facility Hospitality House. Besides inedible food, harsh, arbitrary treatment, untrained or barely trained social services personnel, and a generalized indifference and contempt for the clients, there are powerful disincentives for participation in the “program.” The routine insult and the deliberate sorting and excluding of clients fuels anger and fills the illicit camps on the City's perimeter, but also keeps mandated services to a reasonable budget minimum. The City of Fort Bragg and Hospitality House have worked hand in hand to build this system.

In the locally popular and widely lauded Mayor Lindy Peters-driven City crackdown on the homeless, exclusion and banning are the principal mechanisms for restricting services, and Hospitality Center has been given many legal resources to limit their services to a few chosen individuals while keeping most homeless people out. This year, for example, the traditional Fort Bragg emergency weather shelter program grudgingly commenced limited operations, having embraced draconian City-mandated restrictions on access to the emergency shelter provided free in inclement weather by local churches.

Whatever the churches may want, the new law specifies only one night per year of emergency shelter for those not enrolled in the Hospitality Center program. County cash is funneled directly to the Hospitality Center while Hospitality Center employees are now legally required to manage any emergency shelter program in the City; new zoning regulations prevent any church-based program from operating except under the authority of Hospitality Center.

Our now ex-Mayor and current Councilman, Lindy Peters, has been aggressive in his enterprise to criminalize homelessness whenever possible. The former Mayor pushed, in committee, a revision of an obscure Fort Bragg morals statute that under his mayoral revision made it illegal for more than two Fort Bragg citizens to stand around and talk on the street. Or for anyone to sit on the curb, stump, rock or indeed anywhere other than an official City bench.

That initiative was apparently shot down by the City attorney. In any event, it never came before the full Council and then-Mayor Lindy said no more about it. However, an aggressive campaign of bench removal was begun under the outgoing Peters administration. A charming little flowering tree (next to the Tip Top Bar/Lounge) that overshadowed one of the last benches in the City was chopped down to more reliably expose any miscreants that might have the audacity to avoid police scrutiny by sitting under its shade.

But the camps may not be the only or the best option for the banned and the excluded. Participation in the Hostility — excuse me, Hospitality Center, is no guarantee of housing in the near or the long term. Since time immemorial Fort Bragg has never had sufficient beds for its homeless population.

Recently the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on the rights of the un-housed. Judge Marsha Berzon noted in the court's opinion that “just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places’ the state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying or sleeping on the streets.” But the court specified that the locally infamous camping ordinance can be invoked for anyone “taking even rudimentary precautions to protect themselves from the elements.”

The top federal court in our jurisdiction has decided that the removal of camps in the woods can proceed apace since they are indeed constructed of rudimentary precautions against inclement weather, but the policy of exclusion and service restrictions by the City in intimate coordination with Hospitality Center might have an unforeseen consequence — just wrapping up and laying in the rain on a Fort Bragg street is now not actually illegal, although it may be impractical. When summer comes the hidden homeless problem might emerge from the shadows.

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