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Ukiah considers crackdown on panhandling, transients

Ukiah officials are struggling to address what police say is a growing homeless problem tied to a surge in illegal camping in creek beds - leaving waterways littered with trash and human waste - and aggressive panhandling methods that border on robbery.

The City Council is weighing tougher criminal penalties for aggressive panhandlers and transients who dwell under bridges and on other public property even as they concede that many of those people have nowhere else to stay, store their belongings or use a toilet.

It’s a dilemma facing officials throughout the nation. Some have taken a tough approach, doing what they can to control or move transients elsewhere while others are trying to provide additional services for the population. Many are doing both.

“This is an issue everywhere,” Ukiah Councilwoman Mary Ann Landis said during a hearing last Wednesday night on the city’s camping and panhandling ordinances.

The council introduced changes to the ordinances that would allow police to charge people who camp illegally and aggressively panhandle with misdemeanors on the first offense. Currently, offenders are given warnings or infractions before being criminally charged. But Ukiah Police Chief Chris Dewey said it’s difficult to track what happens with the infractions. Giving police and the District Attorney’s Office the option of initially charging violators with misdemeanors increases their ability to crack down on troublemakers who refuse to comply with the rules, he said. It would be up to the discretion of officers whether to issue warnings or submit charges to the district attorney, Dewey said. He promised officers would be fair.

The council is scheduled to adopt or deny the proposed changes at its Oct. 1 meeting.

Dozens of area residents and members of churches, nonprofits and public agencies that serve homeless populations attended the meeting to implore the council to take a more humane approach to the problem. Only a few who spoke lobbied for tougher rules.

The best solution “is to give them a better alternative,” said Marlene Kurowski, executive director of the Plowshares Peace and Justice Center, which serves meals to homeless and other poor people.

“We simply don’t have a place for people to go. Yet we’re mad when people are camping where they can,” said Libby Guthrie, executive director of the Mendocino County AIDS Volunteer Network and a member of a county committee on homelessness, during an interview prior to the hearing.

The council last Wednesday promised to work on ways to reestablish a homeless shelter for Ukiah’s poorest residents.

A survey of the homeless population in 2013 found that 87 percent of the 1,344 homeless people counted that winter had no shelter, Guthrie told the council. It’s been worse since the 64-bed nonprofit-run Buddy Eller homeless shelter closed in July because of funding issues, she said. Since then, some very sick homeless people - including a man with late-stage liver disease - have been left to fend for themselves on the streets, Guthrie said.

Others at the hearing said that the last thing a homeless person needs is a criminal record and fine they have no way to pay.

“I think it’s draconian,” Ukiah resident Pinky Kushner said.

Instead, they should be provided with at least basic services, such as toilets and places to bathe and to store their important belongings so they’re safe from theft or seizure when city officials or volunteers clear out illegal encampments, Kushner and others suggested.

Guthrie said the homeless committee is working with Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa to come up with plans to provide homeless people in Mendocino County with shelter. But the city will need to pitch in financially, she said. City officials promised to look into funding for a shelter, possibly from the recent upsurge in a tax the city collects from hotels - the transient occupancy tax - a fitting use for money collected under that name, the council noted.

Cities and counties nationwide are approaching homelessness in a variety of ways.

Some, like the city of Lancaster in Southern California, are trying to keep them out of town. City officials there are considering eliminating the city’s train stop in an effort to reduce the number of homeless people they believe are migrating from Los Angeles. Cities in the Bay Area and elsewhere have banned sitting and lying down in public. Honolulu is considering following suit. It also is considering allowing some of its estimated 4,700 homeless people to camp at a remote, former World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

In Sonoma County, there are several year-round homeless shelters as well as places where people can legally sleep in their vehicles, said Jennielynn Holmes-Davis, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, which operates some shelters and the safe parking program that was established by the county last winter.

Catholic Charities also runs Santa Rosa’s Samuel L. Jones homeless shelter. Grappling with a surge of homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing, the city recently added 68 beds at the shelter in the winter months, after rejecting a proposal to reopen the city’s National Guard Armory as a shelter. Plans are underway to do the same thing this winter.

The Ukiah council plans to create a committee that includes supervisors and members of the public to study ways to help the homeless while keeping the community and waterways safe and clean.

Meanwhile, taking steps to crack down on the people who cause disruptions and repeatedly foul area creeks, is necessary, officials said.

“We’re not going to solve the homeless problem” with tougher penalties, Mayor Phil Baldwin said. But it might help defend area creeks from pollution, he said.

“They use the place (creeks) as a bathroom,” said Mike Ammerman, who regularly participates in creek and river cleanups.

The votes to introduce changes to the ordinances were 4-1 and 4-0, with Councilman Steve Scalmanini voting no on the camping ordinance change and abstaining from the vote on panhandling, saying he had insufficient information to make a decision on the latter.

The proposed changes include alterations to the camping ordinance aimed at avoiding the appearance that it discriminated against homeless people, a change necessitated by a recent court ruling.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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