Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023 @ 3:20 p.m.
Public Wary of Del Norte's $10.8M Grant-Funded Multifaceted Plan to Combat Homelessness; Mission Possible Founder Promises Town Halls as Project Progresses
Lila Parsons spent two years in the swamps — the marshy area south of town.
Standing before the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Parsons said her daughter is still there and wants out. But there’s no place for her to go.
“This is the only community I’ve ever been in that didn’t have a shelter for the homeless out there,” she said. “And not all homeless out there are committing crimes. My daughter isn’t. I didn’t when I was out there. But my home out there, I had a bus that was made into an RV, burned down and I had no place to go. I lived in a van for three weeks before I got into Mission Possible and I earned everything I got there.”
Parsons and other Del Norte County residents and business owners spent more than two hours giving public testimony on a transfer of roughly $10.8 million in state Encampment Resolution Funding grant dollars into the county budget.
Using those dollars, the county Department of Health and Human Services, Del Norte Mission Possible and Arcata House Partnership aim to provide a path out of homelessness for those who want it. That funding will pay for a pallet home village, staff to operate an emergency shelter and navigational center, including case management, as well as training.
Members of a county ad-hoc homelessness committee, which includes supervisors Darrin Short and Dean Wilson, have proposed the old juvenile hall facility on Williams Drive for the pallet home village.
The proposed project is an alternative to what doesn't work — moving people out of the swamps and then destroying their property — said Alison Ramsay, True North Organizing Network representative who wrote Del Norte’s ERF grant application.
“People cannot just walk out of the swamps and into housing and jobs without assistance along the way,” she said. “This project is designed to support a graduated path to self sufficiency, and it will create jobs, needed jobs.”
The ad-hoc committee began pursuing ERF grant dollars in February and had proposed the county-owned, six-acre Williams Drive property as an alternative to other locations in the Elk Valley Road area south of Crescent City due to potential constraints from the California Coastal Commission.
According to Wilson, having a program to help people out of homelessness will county officials to clean up encampments in the Ruth Compound and other areas in his district without running afoul of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' 2019 Martin v. Boise decision.
"You can't force somebody into a shelter," he said Tuesday. "you have to make them available. According to the law passed by the courts, if you have a location you are completely authorized to move encampments out."
About the time the ad-hoc homelessness committee began pursuing those ERF dollars, the Point-in-Time survey in January determined that 694 people in Del Norte County identified as homeless, according to the 2023 report which was released in August.
The report identified that the significant barriers to housing in Del Norte were felony convictions, a shortage of affordable rentals, high housing costs and rising prices for basic necessities, DHHS Interim Deputy Director Jake Campbell told the Wild Rivers Outpost in August.
On Feb. 14, 2023, county supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of Del Norte County applying for ERF grant dollars for the pallet home project. District 4 representative Joey Borges dissented, though he went along with his colleagues in declaring a shelter crisis in Del Norte at that same meeting.
On Tuesday, Borges was the sole vote of dissent on transferring the $10.8 million ERF dollars to the county budget.
His District 3 colleague, Chris Howard made a motion to accept the grant on the condition that the entire Board as well as the public have a chance to provide input and fully vet the project.
“I want some assurances that some of the conversations that have been left out of this since February to come back to the Board so we can fully flesh this thing out in a proper manner so it is a truly transparent process,” he said. “And I want to know from my CAO, Neal Lopez, that we have the mechanisms in place to bring that conversation back to the Board when our ad-hoc and partners like Mission Possible come up with a plan so it can be fully vetted and the community can truly express to this Board on making these moves.”
The public’s response to the budget transfer was largely spurred on by Savanna Halliwell, who says her bakery, Sally’s by the Sea, will be the site of Mission Possible’s new navigational center.
While her family had been planning to leave the area for Colorado in March, Halliwell said Mission Possible’s purchase of the buildings at 1070 U.S. 101, across the street from the old juvenile hall building, prompted their landlord to ask them to vacate the premises sooner.
Sally’s by the Sea will close for good on Saturday, Halliwell told the Wild Rivers Outpost last week.
On Tuesday, Halliwell told supervisors that she was concerned about a lack of transparency as well as how a small community would handle a large injection of money. She — and several others — also questioned the project’s proposed location.
“Finding a spot that is not at the gateway of the town is more ideal for the longevity of the economy here,” Halliwell said. “There are so many vacant spots in Del Norte County. And, you know, I’m not an expert on it. I don’t know how you have to do the zoning. There’s lots of different rules you have to follow that I’m sure I’m unaware of, but I feel like the speed at which this process is moving has left a sour taste in the community’s mouth. [They’re] feeling like they don’t get an input on where it goes, don’t get an input on how it’s going to be handled, such a large injection of money, and to have it really change that perception of the town when you come in.”
According to Shiann Hogan, deputy director of the Del Norte Behavioral Health Branch, Mission Possible’s purchase of the property at 1070 U.S. 101 — which includes the former Sticky Grove cannabis dispensary — was a private sale between the nonprofit and the landlord. ERF grant dollars were not used in that purchase, Hogan said, but will be used to pay staff at the navigational center and Mission Possible’s new emergency shelter.
DHHS has been involved with developing services to the unhoused population for many years and joined the ad-hoc committee in December 2022, Hogan told supervisors.
Mission Possible Executive Director Charlaine Mazzei said the organization has been working to build an emergency shelter since 2019. Since she became involved in April 2021, there have been at least three attempted property negotiations, all of which fell through.
Del Norte Mission Possible inspected the property at 1070 U.S. 101, but because they didn’t want to displace the businesses there, the organization made a purchase offer on a different piece of property.
At that property, there were several concerns raised including water well and septic needs as well as zoning.
“At that time, we did circle back to the 101 property after the cannabis dispensary had publicly posted they were closing permanently and after we were already informed by the owner of the property’s realtor that the Sally’s by the Sea owner had given notice they were not going to continue in that location after the end of December,” Mazzei said. “At that point we didn’t have any more concerns about businesses being displaced because they were either closed or leaving anyway.”
Mazzei acknowledged people’s concerns about the shelter’s location at Crescent City’s northern gateway, but said the area is zoned for an emergency homeless shelter.
Robert Derego, who owned Sticky Grove and Wonder Stump, said that while he did close his business due to the Board of Supervisors “setting a disadvantaged tax rate for us,” he never quit on the lease.
“We invested into that property with shutters and security,” he said. “I’ve always sold stuff, usually for other people’s shops, and I’ve made decent money since I decided to do it for myself. I just decided I didn’t want to give it to the county.”
Derego pointed to the proliferation of short-term rentals and people deciding to Airbnb their property as one reason for an increase in homelessness. He said he was intrigued by the pallet home project idea, but wanted more information.
“How many people do we expect to help? How long do the $9-10 million [in] professional services last — is that for one year or is it a big duration? How many people are we going to bed? How many pallet houses are we going to get for $800,000? I would love to see the program go forward in a lot of ways, but I wish there were more details too.”
Del Norte Mission Possible’s founder Daphne Cortese-Lambert promised to get those details to the community. A confidentiality clause connected with the purchase of the future shelter facility kept her and her colleagues with the organization from talking with local businesses.
“We care about local businesses,” she said. “We want feedback, we want town halls, we want county participation. We want to do everything we can to be an asset to the community.”
Cortese-Lambert said the graduated continuum of care model, which includes those with lived experience helping others out of homelessness, was modeled on Rogue Retreat’s system at Hope Village.
The Medford-based organization had made a presentation to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors in 2019 and on Jan. 12, Cortese-Lambert and 20 others, including Borges, will be touring their facilities.
“You have to see it for yourself, these facilities they have for the homeless, you can’t tell they’re there,” she said.
Mission Possible is also working with Arcata House Partnership, which, according to Cortese-Lambert, “has done what we are doing successfully.”
According to Lambert, town halls were built into the ERF grant.
“We want to make a plan that suits our community and uses the strengths of other successful programs,” she said. “If you look at what we have already done as far as Mission Possible, we’ve been running a transitional home — a homeless shelter of sorts — for several years now and no one knows where it is.”
Lambert also spoke to the navigational center Del Norte Mission Possible established at Elk Valley and Howland Hill roads near Park City Superette.
“We don’t have people hanging out there. We are very respectful,” she said. “What everyone has to say is going to matter and we’re going to mitigate and work toward solutions until everyone feels comfortable. But until the release of funds happens we can’t go there. We can’t begin the process.”
Parsons, the woman who escaped the swamps and is trying to help her daughter do the same, said she’s in school to become a social worker thanks to Mission Possible. With Cortese-Lambert’s help, Parsons became a peer-support specialist for the county, though the job was temporary. She recently moved out of Mission Possible House, the transitional program for women, and lives in her own apartment.
Del Norte needs a homeless shelter, Parsons told supervisors.
“It’s not like every Tom, Dick and Harry bad person is going to be in there,” she said. “They’re going to earn their right to be in the pallet homes, in the shelter, and if they screw up, they’re going to be kicked to the curb.”