Councilmember Concerned About Language Describing Homeless Population

Central-Park-Restroom

Discussion of the Demolition of Central Park Bathrooms Postponed Until Next Week – An item on the agenda that in part looked to demolish what some consider to be an historic building, the Central Park restroom, triggered numerous comments by some Davis residents complaining that the restrooms draw “unsavory” elements.

On February 16, 2010, the city council directed staff to consolidate several capital improvement projects that were being planned for Central Park, based on the project goals and objectives presented to the council, including demolition of the old restroom.

On November 1, 2011, the city council voted 3-2 to direct staff to put the plans for Phase I of the Central Park Master Plan out to bid, including construction of the new restroom and history plaza, which included a modification to “Direct staff to proceed with demolition of the existing restroom in Central Park and relocate the existing storage shed to the Hattie Weber Museum incorporating the shed appearance with the Hattie Weber Museum to be used as storage and direct that $1000 of the CIP budget be used to add shelving or other improvements to maximize the storage capacity of the shed.”

The question of the demolition of the restroom remains one of controversy, with Rand Herbert of the HRMC (Historical Resources Management Commission) speaking out in favor of keeping the restroom and re-purposing it as a historical building to serve the storage needs of the Hattie Weber Museum.

A number of residents came forward to speak of the unsavory element that the park and the restrooms, apparently in their eyes, attracts.

Councilmember Rochelle Swanson was offended by the use of the term “unsavory” to describe the homeless population.

During her brief comment on the item that will come back next week because Brett Lee had to leave the meeting early to attend to a work-related issue, she said, “Some of the adjectives that have been used tonight are very un-Davisite like – unsavory, undesirable – a lot of these people have mental illness and chemical dependency.  If you spend time there and you talk to police officers, some of these people are born and raised residents and that’s where they’re at.”

“They’re still people,” she said.  She did acknowledge, “It can be scary.  I appreciate the people who said they’ve never had a bad encounter.  I’ve walked to meetings at night and it can be very scary at times.”

“I would just ask that if we’re going to go through this iteration next week that people just remember that these are also people – those words, I just think we’re better than that,” she added.

Carrie Weinrich, who owns a business on D St. by the corner of the park, told the council during public comment, “I have several people who work in my business and their clients that come in to see them, that are concerned about the unsavory types that have been roaming around Davis in the last few years, that have been increasing in the last few years.”

She added, “The way the building is situated is just another area for people to loiter, hang around, and the park already has issues with people hanging around and it would be better if they didn’t have a place to hang around.”

Kari Fry, a business owner and neighborhood resident said, “We are bringing people (from out of town) to this park, it’s a destination, an engine for our downtown economy.”  She said that she has lived a block from the park, and “I have experienced the unsavory elements – they’re substantial and they’ve affected my family and my children.  So that’s serious.”

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kemble Pope started by quoting FDR and then argued, “We want historical preservation if it is the best and highest uses of community resources and in this case I strongly believe it does not.”  He added, “I want more children to be able to play there.”

“The police are reporting statistics differently than they were in 2008 and they have a completely different approach to our homeless problem than they did in the past,” he said.  “They are not just citing and ticketing them, they are actually working with them to not bring them into the system.”

Elaine Roberts Musser, argued that the big issue was “structural.”  “Are we looking at a money pit,” she asked, noting the problems with saving the Tank House.  “If you want to save this building, I think the burden should be on the proponents to pay for any structural damages.”

Randi McNair, who has run the farmer’s market for much of its existence, expressed the concerns that families have about the safety around the bathrooms and noted that a storage unit would be an even less attended facility – “no one is there very much,” she said.

She added that the museum is not open 24 hours a day and wonders what will be different turning the unit into a storage facility rather than a restroom.  “That is my big concern because my job is safety of the people that come to the market,” she added, encouraging the project to move forward without the old bathrooms.

Rich Rifkin, a member of the commission, noted that if we have to knock down the restrooms because people will loiter behind it, we also, using the same logic, have to knock down the Hattie Weber Museum, since people could loiter behind that building as well.

As another resident noted, the building is not causing the problems in the park, and she noted that in the 1970s we tore down blocks of intercity buildings thinking that would solve the social problems, and it did not.

Mary Lee Thompson, a volunteer at the Hattie Weber noted that it’s a misdemeanor to hang out in the park after 10 and that lights have been installed.  “It’s not comfortable to sleep there anymore,” she added.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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33 thoughts on “Councilmember Concerned About Language Describing Homeless Population”

  1. Tia Will

    These comments before the CC reminded me of an event of 21 years ago. As a new resident of North Star, I was taking a walk around the pond when an acquaintance who owned one of the homes over looking the pond referred to families from near by apartment buildings out enjoying the pond as “riffraff”. That was one of my first indications that perhaps it was I who was not a good fit for that upscale neighborhood.

    For those speakers who chose to use words such as “unsavory” and “undesirable” to describe our fellow citizens who I believe might be more aptly described as “less fortunate”, I have a few questions.
    1) What is your actual goal ? If it is protection of your children, what is it you are protecting them from ? How
    have they been affected that you consider “serious” ? Have they been threatened or attacked ? If so this is an
    individual case for police intervention , not blanket condemnation of a varied group of individuals.
    2) Is it the sight of the less fortunate in our public spaces that you find troubling ? If so, why not use this as an
    opportunity to teach your children about civic
    responsibility and how those who are more privileged can contribute to those who are less so ?
    3) If your goal is removal of the homeless, how about contributing to constructive efforts and suggestions on
    how provision of safer housing could be accomplished in a humane rather than punitive fashion ?
    4) If your feeling is that the presence of the homeless has an adverse effect on your business, a better way to
    present this might be demonstration of actual loss of business in terms of receipts or customer
    written statements that they will not frequent your business because of the presence of the homeless rather
    than with vague, unquantifiable allegations.

    I think that we all agree that being homeless in our community is less than desirable, if for nothing else, the individual’s own safety and security. I also agree with Rochelle Swanson that we as a community are better than the deliberate degrading of members of our community who are in difficult circumstances. Those who have the time and energy to put into public comment might also consider spending some of that time and energy working with the many members of our community who are attempting to improve life for this group rather than just make them disappear.

    1. Mr.Toad

      While I agree with Rochelle i thought that she was wrong when she said it was “un-Davis like” to use such rhetoric. In fact the entire argument is completely Davis like on both sides and completely stupid. The idea that a bunch well off Davisites don’t want to deal with the poor or mentally ill is emblematic of a significant portion of the community. Efforts by previous councils to limit the ability of local churches to help the neediest and efforts to stop affordable housing from being built at Wildhorse are but two previous examples of this phenomenon. Restrictive covenants on the deeds of the houses nearby are a much better historic example of what it means to be Davislike.

      On the other side you have the preservationists trying to save something that, from the picture above, clearly has little to no historic value, as if its WPA era construction confers upon it status equal to something photographed by Dorothea Lange, the historic importance of Manzanar, or a mural at Coit’s Tower. Believe me if that building were saved and converted to storage nothing resembling Coit’s Tower would ever be seen inside there again.

      The building should go and the play area should be redesigned as planned. If we were going to save that building we should have made that decision before the city spent hundreds of thousands on new public restrooms and remodeled the old building as a bathroom. Revisiting this plan now is totally stupid, however, doing so is very much Davislike.

  2. Ryan Kelly

    People should be more explicit on the behavior that they find offensive that the building attracts. Gathering to drink or use drugs, offensive language, fighting or loud arguing, public sexual activity – these have no place in a location right next to a children’s playground. Using words like “unsavory” doesn’t explain enough. Then there is the creepiness factor of having transient men watching children play.

    The bathrooms were in place before the Hattie Webber Museum was move there. Before that, the bathroom building had more visibility on all sides. After the museum was placed there, it blocked visibility and has created the problem we now have. We have new bathrooms built for the park.

    I wonder if in decades the new bathroom building will be labeled with such historic significance. Just saying….

    1. B. Nice

      I don’t think there is anything inherently creepy about anyone watching children play, in fact it often brings me great joy. I imagine it may do so for others as well.

  3. Frankly

    My office is directly across from the community church and the next street over from this bathroom facility. Facts/opinions from my perspective:

    1. We have not experienced any major problems with the homeless population in this area. A few years ago we would have occurrences of people using the hose in back of the building to bathe. However, we made a few changes to make our property less open and less inviting, and this problem stopped.

    2. My employees (infrequently) complain about how they are made to feel uncomfortable leaving work at night with homeless people loitering in the area. However, again, we have not had any problems.

    3. The bathroom is an attractant for the homeless because of the adjacent church and the services it provides to the homeless. However, this area is also a place where children play.

    4. We should not use inflammatory language describing the homeless; however many of them are homeless because of mental health problems.

    And this last point is key. People with mental health problems can be unpredictable. There has been at least one recent rape in this area by a homeless person with a known history of mental health problems. Empathy is a requirement, but so is ensuring safety. And frankly, because we are lacking in mental health services and enough policing resources for this population of homeless, I would prefer we eliminate some of the attractants to this area.

    People living, working and playing among homeless people with mental illness is akin to doing the same in an area where claymore mines used to be buried and there is a history of one going off and injuring a person. The only difference is that we would not suffer in our sensibilities for hurting the feelings of a mine by implementing measures to prevent them from going off and hurting people.

    1. FreddieOakley

      I don’t know quite what to say. (But don’t get your hopes up; that won’t stop me.)

      I have been much involved in providing food and shelter to folks who need them in Davis for some years. My experience, which is extensive and intimate, is that the majority of folks who need help are pretty much just folks who need help. Throwaway kids, many of whom aged-out of the foster-care system with nothing buy the clothes they were wearing. People with jobs (especially working for the food services contractor at UCD) who haven’t yet put together the first-last-security-deposit for housing. Folks who lost their jobs, homes, and eventually their cars because of bad luck or addiction to drugs or ETOH. Certainly, some folks who have health issues, including some with mental health issues. These last are at risk of pretty awful dangers on the streets. The kids have already mostly been raped, beaten and/or abandoned. (I admire them for not being dead. They are remarkably resilient.) I have driven folks to appointments. I have taken them to and from classes. I have shopped with them, cooked for them, hung out with them when they needed it (mostly at Central Park), spent the night at the shelter with them. My Sunday School kids made lunch for them. We sing bad music together…wait…that probably is a public disgrace…

      I have not met any career criminals, although I suppose they are out there. There are probably also career criminals in my neighborhood, I think. Certainly, one of my wealthy neighbors treated both me and my teenaged daughter to terrifying road rage. We’re talking “made a police report” behavior. Wonder what it was like at his house before his wife and kids left…

      Our unsheltered population is mostly folks who need a modicum of help. It is shameful to label them, to harass them, to call them names, or to make assumptions about why they are unsheltered. We have the right to expect decent social behavior from our neighbors. We have a police department charged with helping us get decent social behavior. If I can make a report about a rich white dude, anybody can make a report if they are accosted or feel threatened. What we can NOT do in a decent, moral universe, is just make people go away. That is a very, very bad idea. It is banal and it is evil and it doesn’t ever work out well.

      1. FreddieOakley

        I intended my comments to be on the topic in general, not a reply to Frankly, specifically. Sorry for my ineptitude. I’m blaming the learning curve.

        1. Frankly

          FeddieOakley – No worries from my end.

          First, thanks for your service helping these folks.

          But, I wish you had not admonished others for labeling and naming and then used the term “rich white dude”. It seems we all have our blind biases that need work.

          1. growthissue

            So, one is being sensitive if they doesn’t like the term “rich white dude” but being insensitive if the term “unsavory” is used? Who’s the official arbitrator of what is considered PC, you B. Nice?

          2. B. Nice

            I think you are missing my point. I interpreted Oakley’s comment as using the phrase term “rich white dude” in an ironic way in order to make the point that it is NOT okay to put such labels on people. As it is it is also not okay to refer to human beings as unsavory. I’m not claiming that either label is or is not PC, my point is that we should avoid using labels all together.

          3. growthissue

            I suggest that you read her comment again because I don’t think she was trying to ironic at all. IMO her point was that if anyone feels threatened they can make a report as she even did once on a “rich white dude”.

  4. Davis Progressive

    seems to me that people worried about the unsavory elements want to push homeless peopl out of their sight, the problem is homeless people have to be somewhere. it also seems to me that homeless people are more likely to hang around a broken down restroom than a refurbished storage facility. oh and are we going to shutdown the church bcause that woman got raped there last year?

  5. Rich Rifkin

    One important point made by Dennis Dingemanns in the public comments on this issue was that over the last 4 years, crime in Central Park is way, way down. It’s gone from hundreds of annual complaints and many arrests to 7 so far in 2013.

    I am sympathetic to those who feel unsafe in that area. But much of that perception appears to be out of date, largely due to better policing practices. Tearing down that small building won’t likely have any effect.

    As to the much more serious problem of our homeless mentally ill–not saying that all or even most homeless have severe mental health issues–thank god for the Community Church and other altruists who give them aid. My strong political belief is that our society–meaning our government in this case–should provide for the needs of the severely mentally ill who are living on the streets. (I presume they have no family which can take care of them.) If antipsychotic medications will help, then I favor forcing them into treatment for their own good (while employing the legal protections of Laura’s Law). And if they are experiencing psychosis and medicines won’t stabilize them, I believe they need to be put in a locked medical facility. The worst of all worlds in my opinion is to leave a psychotic person to fend for himself. The result is often a terrible existence on the streets and premature death, often by suicide. In other cases, the psychosis leads to serious (or petty) criminal acts and then life locked up in prisons, where they do not really belong (but, I suppose, are better off than leaving them to fend for themselves on the streets).

  6. B. Nice

    I was uncomfortable with the verbiage, and it’s implications, being used by some of the public commenters and appreciated Rochelle expressing her concern. I do see a difference though, between describing a person as an unsavory and describing elements of a situation as being unsavory . A few years ago, while visiting the park with my kids, I witnessed a very heated verbal argument break out between two groups of people feet from the play structure. They were yelling at each other, swearing at each other, and one person was threatening to sic his apparently very protective and seemingly viscous dog on another. It freaked me out enough that I called the police. There were many elements of that situation that I would consider unsavory, but it had nothing to do with the fact that the people involved appeared homeless, I would have been just as freaked out and called the police regardless of the appearance of anyone acting this way, especially in such close proximity to a park. As a side note a city maintenance worker who witnessed part of the exchange claimed that this was a common occurrence at park, and seemed to feel I overreacted by contacting the police. I don’t live near the park and only visit it sporadically, but if I did live close and this type of exchange was a common occurrence I would have concerns about bringing my kids to play there, which is the point I believe Kari was making.

    As Rochelle stated, these are people, they have problems, and they need help, and I was uncomfortable with the callousness shown by some of the public commenters in regards to them.

  7. Frankly

    Tia Will wrote: “I was taking a walk around the pond when an acquaintance who owned one of the homes over looking the pond referred to families from near by apartment buildings out enjoying the pond as “riffraff”.”

    This reminds me of a conversation I had yesterday at an after-work business meeting with a commercial real estate broker who is a REO specialist (“REO” is “Real Estate Owned”… and means that a lender has taken ownership after the borrower defaults). We were in downtown Oakland. The subject got to the lack of availability of certain desired classes of commercial properties. The broker told me that 70% of the calls he gets are for help with REO properties in the bad areas of Oakland and other low-income population areas in the Bay Area. He said that owners of these properties just stopped paying their mortgage at some point, and nobody will go into those areas to work on evicting and recovering the property. But since the borrowers no longer own or can sell these properties, they stop taking care of them. The broker said he has tried and had his car stolen, his wheels stolen and has been punched and shot at. His employer now forbids business in these areas.

    (Sidebar…And of course since the governor and the teachers unions killed RDA, there is no way for the cities to label these areas as blighted and redevelop them. )

    My point here is that there are statistical correlations with greater crime and greater general neighborhood decline… and lower general social economic circumstances.

    If we are going to demand an end to disparaging generalizations about people presently in lower socioeconomic circumstances (I agree that these labels should stop), then it would help if there was a corresponding acknowledgement that these correlations exist. Let’s just stick to the statistical facts and stop calling people names they do not deserve.

    IMO, the root cause of adults living in a crappy socioeconomic circumstance is a history of their bad life choices… or at a very least a lack of recognition that good life choices are now required. So it stands to reason that having a greater population of residents in crappy socioeconomic circumstances would result in a community plagued with greater impacts from people making bad life choices.

    You see, I think all the smart progressives in Davis completely understand this… but many would never admit it. It is a “cake and eat it too” position… and it is brilliant if not so transparent. The “cake” as maintaining Davis as a great place to live because of the greater affluence and continued development practice and social policy that allows only a limited population of “riffraff”. The “eating of cake” as being the proud label of liberal progressive… that class of people that are known to be more caring about those less fortunate people (i.e., the “riffraff”).

    It is, in fact, this clear hypocrisy and discontinuity of words and deeds that causes me to consider the label of liberal progressive as often unworthy of honor.

    I live in uber-high cost Davis largely because of the lower number of people lower-socioeconomic circumstances. I think we have gone too far in that direction and need to build more business for jobs and tax revenue, and more housing to at least stabilize the cost and provide more affordable housing. However, if we go too far and significantly increase the number of people stuck in crappy socioeconomic circumstances, I would likely move away.

    The bottom line – as with most things in life – is that we need a balance.

      1. Frankly

        Here is a good reference:

        [url]http://toped.svefoundation.org/2011/03/04/browns-plan-to-abolish-redevelopment-gains-support/[/url]

        [quote]“But the California Teachers Association and other employee unions backed Brown, and two weeks ago its partners in the Education Coalition – the school boards association, the state PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators – signed a joint letter supporting Brown and “changes to law that will reduce drains on the state’s finances.” Since then they have been working the halls of the Legislature, Rhoads said. Helping their cause has been disclosures that redevelopment projects haven’t generated jobs that agencies have claimed or built low-income housing they’re legally bound to construct, and that they have subsidized high-paying city jobs and have expanded into areas that were never blighted.[/quote]

      2. Frankly

        Really? You are joking right? Of course the CA teachers unions supported Brown for killing RDAs.

        Now in various districts there was/is disagreement since some would be initially harmed by the loss of RDAs. But the state teacher’s unions saw the cash and they wanted it.

    1. B. Nice

      Frankly wrote: “The root cause of adults living in a crappy socioeconomic circumstance is a history of their bad life choices… or at a very least a lack of recognition that good life choices are now required. So it stands to reason that having a greater population of residents in crappy socioeconomic circumstances would result in a community plagued with greater impacts from people making bad life choices.”

      I fundamentally disagree with you on this, not ALL adults living in crappy socioeconomic circumstances are there because of their own life choices . (A case in point is the stories Freddie Oakley shared about the horrendous experiences of some of the homeless young adults in our community.) Just as not all people in good socioeconomic are there because of there own good choices. Implying that this is the case in all circumstances leads one to erroneously conclude that people get what they deserve, which is quite clearly not the case.

      1. Frankly

        ALL adults currently in crappy economic circumstances, except those with disabilities, are either the result of, or are being perpetuated by, bad life choices.

        It seems you want a give a pass and continued hand-outs to people that have had crappy life experiences.

        I see that as destructive altruism.

        I do understand that some people are thoroughly messed up from serious child abuse; but then it just means they are having to climb to higher economic circumstances with some greater challenges (e.g. lower down the ladder). It should be our calling to do the hand up to help them climb at least until they are on equal footing with their peers… but only if they accept the struggle to do so. Propping them up with hand outs is the same as a prison sentence of life-long dependency.

        Again, I am not including people with disabling disabilities… those that cannot climb because of mental or physical problems.

        I am also not including children and seniors.

        I am talking about able-bodied and able-brained adults from the age of 20-65.

        What percentage of our homeless population fits in that group?

        1. B. Nice

          First, I think you underestimate the challenges faced by those who start “further down the ladder”. Second your line of reasoning bothers me because it leads to false conclusions about how hard someone has or has not worked and unfairly judges someones character and work ethic by tying it to their economic status. I guarantee that there are people out there working much harder then I am who live in poverty, as I’m sure that there are people out there who I work much harder then who are much wealthier. Your reasoning seems to imply a correlation where there is none, and it makes it easier for us to ignore, disregard, and belittle those who are struggling, by blaming them, and their lack of work ethic and poor choices, for their circumstances.

          I separate issue is how to help people living in poverty get out. We agree on this this as a goal, and we agree that creating dependence is not the best solution. But I imagine we disagree on the best ways to achieve the first and avoid the second.

  8. Pingback: Council Gets Another Shot at Central Park Restroom Issue | .:Davis Vanguard:.

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