Chamber Hosts Downtown Walkabout to Focus Attention on Homeless Issues in Downtown Davis

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Mayor Robb Davis talks with Police Chief Darren Pytel (middle) and Chamber CEO Christina Blackman (left)

The Davis Chamber on Monday afternoon hosted a walkabout that focused on several locations that were areas of concern related to where the larger homeless population spends time in the downtown core.

Attending the walkabout was a sizable contingent from the business community, including Chamber CEO Christina Blackman, Chamber President Jason Taormino and Vice President Rob White, Stewart Savage from DDBA (Downtown Davis Business Association), Mayor Robb Davis and Chief Darren Pytel, among several others.

One of the stops on the tour of downtown focused on an area along G Street by the ACE parking lot, which had been a location where homeless people had been storing a sizable amount of their items.  That area has since been cleaned up.

Mayor Robb Davis said he hasn’t seen much here in the last six weeks and Chief Darren Pytel said that the police had been stepping up their efforts to notice the homeless people that they have to move their personal belongs or risk having them impounded.

Chief Pytel explained, “Any complaint that currently comes in, we turn over to Davis Community Meals and they go out and do first contact and we give them six to seven days to do that.”

He said that “in areas where it is an immediate hazard, it may turn into a day or two notice.

“Notice is all about due process,” he explained.  “It’s our responsibility to ensure there’s due process.  You can’t just show up and immediately take people’s things.”

There has been some discussion of providing a space for people to be able to store their property.  Mayor Davis said that when one church proposed having storage lockers, the neighborhood complained.

He said, “I’ve talked to other congregations about providing storage on their site, no one’s interested.”  He added, “From my perspective, a lot of the stuff that we see, I think what’s changed over a little bit is that the quantity of goods that people are keeping with them, hauling around, would make it prohibitive to use what was even conceptualized (at) Davis Community Church.  Those were small spaces.

“I still think there’s merit to having these discussions,” he added.

Christina Blackman wants to get the community to help homeless people in ways that does not involve giving direct handouts.  “Educating the community as to why this is a different way of helping,” she said.  “I think if we really want to help solve the problem then making sure that we provide the support services and eventually housing if we can.”

She noted that with the low cost of methamphetamine right now, it doesn’t take a lot of money to supply a week’s worth of drugs to an addict.  She noted that an addict “can turn around and get cash pretty readily and then dose up again – it’s just keeping her in that space.”

Mayor Davis talks with Chamber CEO Christina Blackman and others on the challenges of homelessness.

Robb Davis said that a few years ago these discussion led to an article in the Enterprise that “led to a tremendous amount of pushback” from the community “with people saying it’s my right to help people in need and I have to do it according to my conscience.”

The tour moved to a location along 1st Street near the Boy Scout Cabin.  One of the disturbing behaviors are homeless people in states of distress yelling.  Chief Pytel said that it takes a lot of contact and the buildup of trust before you can break through some of the barriers in order to help people in these conditions.

“It takes relationships,” Mayor Davis explained.  Mayor Davis said that he has thought about five people who were in relationships with people in the community that eventually helped them get off the streets “because at a moment in time they were ready.”  He said, “That was not predictable.  It was not programmed.”

He mentioned there was one person who they had thought was so far beyond help, but then at some point the person said, “Help me.”  “And they got her, and they got her home,” he said.  “That was a matter of years.”

But others got help and still fell back, so the situation is difficult.

“Without housing and wrap-around programs,” he said, “the barriers are low… the amount of money necessary to get a week’s supply of the drugs we’re talking about is very very low.”  He also said if you curtailed panhandling and giving to zero, “I hate to say it, but I think you’d have an increase in petty theft.”

He explained, “People are living into their addiction.”

So what can be done?  There was a long discussion in an area along Third Street on property that is open space owned by AT&T across from Crepeville.  This has been a trouble spot that has been cleared up because the city put it on the property owner to clear up the nuisance.  “They are taking action now,” Chief Pytel explained.

“The people that were hanging out here were doing everything pretty much,” Ms. Blackman explained.

Mayor Davis explained that most of the people that they see are “not transient in the sense that they are here and then gone,” but rather he said that we see the same people over time and, while their behavior is unpredictable and they may scream, because we become familiar with those individuals, those behaviors become more predictable and less threatening.

More troubling are those who are temporary and passing through town.  “They represent an unknown, and they represent a risk,” he explained, even to the native homeless population.  “Some of the unpredictability is in the newness of people who come in and no one really knows what they’re up to and what they’re going to do.”

The business community is at a loss for how to help the business owner who is having problems with homeless populations.

The issue is complex and, while police are often called, Chief Pytel explained that “we have to deal with people’s immediate safety concerns.”  But, even having said that, “there may or may not be anything that we can do.

“A lot of people say, why don’t you just arrest them,” he said.  “We’re finding over and over that that’s not necessarily the answer,” especially if “mental illness or drugs and addiction are the primary issues.

“So just making an arrest under the current criminal justice system is not going to change that behavior,” he explained.  “We are looking for support that people are open to alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system.”  He mentioned the Neighborhood Court, support for agencies that support those citizens, and other programs.

“I don’t think there’s any one magic bullet,” he said.

Robb Davis said, “There’s no one thing we can do, there’s simply not.”  But he did say, “I think that the relational piece is one response.”

He said that congregational leaders come to him and ask, what more can they do other than offer shelter.  Robb Davis responded, “It’s going to take a very particular type of person.  It’s going to take some very good training, but if we as a city say we want to sponsor something…”

Rob White pointed out that there is only so much a city can do, but there are people who are looking to get involved in the community and volunteer.  “I think there’s an opportunity for the city to craft places where those volunteer activities can happen.”

Robb Davis pointed to what he called a “silo issue” where each part of the potential solution viewed their issue in isolation.  “What I’m hearing you say… is that there’s merit on our side to try to break down some of those silos and say how do we have a safer feeling downtown.”

He said, “The most challenging issue of volunteerism that I see is the relation.  That would (lead the) way to helping people realize that what we’re really after is the people…”

He suggested having that discussion at the two-by-two, as to how to create a more comprehensive approach to the downtown.

Rob White made the point that “it is a two way street, what I’m suggesting isn’t that you’re not doing an amazing job – you’ve done as much as you can with the resources that you have…  But how do we supplement even more by getting other volunteers?”

Rob White noted that, while it is people’s right to donate money as they see fit, it is also people’s right to run their businesses and feel safe in the downtown.  “Everybody has rights, they’re all clashing into other,” he said, and that leaves it to the policymaker to figure out the proper balance.

He noted that, while voices show up, those are often the loudest voices in the room, people who are riled up and they might not be representative.  He said that there needs to be a recognition that there are those that will never come to a council meeting, they’ll never contact you.  “It doesn’t make them less of a voice, it just makes them harder to engage.

“So if they’re a voice that won’t speak to me, if they’re a voice that won’t come to council, if they are a voice that will not raise their voice, then I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

Rob White said that what he wants to see is the creation of new spaces where people can come to.

The exchange can be summed up that there is really no magic bullet.  There are other communities that are dealing with similar problems, there is an exchange of information, but the main take away from this discussion is that there need to be more of these kinds of frank and honest discussions in order to make headway on a pervasive and troublesome issue.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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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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17 thoughts on “Chamber Hosts Downtown Walkabout to Focus Attention on Homeless Issues in Downtown Davis”

  1. Tia Will

    I am wondering about the current status in Davis of two initiatives from different communities:

    1. Housing first

    2. Tiny houses either as a form of bridge to permanent housing, or as permanent housing themselves.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Housing First is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.”

      Press release from December:

      The City of Davis will receive $233,000 in matching funds from Sutter Health to increase permanent supportive housing for its chronically homeless population under a Memorandum of Understanding approved by the Davis City Council.

      The funds will be used to support Davis Pathways, a program that aligns private and public funding and resources to support no-or-low barrier access to housing – a proven best practice in ending homelessness.

      “The City of Davis is committed to creating long-term housing solutions for our chronically homeless,” said Mayor Robb Davis. “By partnering with Sutter Health, our city is able to secure additional resources needed to jump start an innovative program that allows us to work with local landlords and service providers to permanently house the most vulnerable individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in Davis.”

      Jim Hoch: “Hopefully there will no “Housing First” in Davis. It’s hard to see where it would be situated.”

      What are you envisioning?

      From the press release: “The matching grant is one of several community investments that Sutter Health is making to address chronic homelessness. The Placer County Board of Supervisors took a similar action to receive a $1 million matching grant that will be used to purchase housing units and fund rental subsidies for the chronically homeless. ”

      It’s hard to see where the city of Davis could purchase housing units and rental subsidies for the chronically homeless? Doesn’t seem that hard for me.

      1. Jim Hoch

        The issue is with “housing first” in particular. Historically there has been an agreement in place between the chronically homeless and various programs, stop smoking meth, take your meds and participate in various activities and we will give you a place to stay and a transition to a “normal” or “near-normal” life.

        Some people went for that but other said, “no I like smoking meth and I don’t want to take any BS off you so I will stay here”.  To address this population they created “housing first” which imposes no pre-conditions on a person’s behavior in order to be placed in housing.

        “Like to smoke meth?, no problem, here is your key”. No there is hope that at some point people will want to stop smoking meth but that is entirely up to the discretion of the addict. Same with mental health issues, no behavioral change is required.

        If you walk along the railroad tracks by “F” street and say to yourself, “I’d really like it if these people could move in next door to me tonight” then you will like “housing first”.

        If on the other hand you say to yourself “I really hope these people find recovery and stop behaving like this” then you will not like “housing first” because that is not what it is about.

         

        1. Tia Will

          John

          that is entirely up to the discretion of the addict. Same with mental health issues, no behavioral change is required.”

          Your choice of words betrays your point. Those who suffer from addiction and some mental health issues do not enjoy the same “discretion” that you and I do. These are illnesses that limit the “discretion” of the sufferer in much the same way that anorexia limits the capacity of an individual to eat, or diabetes dictates a person’s “discretion” about how often to urinate.

          It is my understanding that when an individual is part of a comprehensive housing first program, which by the way is not just a matter of being handed a key with no other support, they are statistically more likely to succeed in staying off the street. I do not have stats at my fingertips. Perhaps someone would like to weigh in.

           

        2. Jim Hoch

          Tia,

           

          If your metric is ” staying off the street” then yes, Housing First is the best way to achieve this. However if you take someone who is smoking meth in a tent and let them smoke meth in an apartment they will likely prefer the apartment for their meth smoking pleasure and therefore will be considered a “success” from the homelessness POV. From the POV of “have you really helped anyone” that is a lot less certain. For a community that freaks at the idea of a hotel in the neighborhood the reality of uncontrolled schizophrenics and meth addicts next door may not be appealing. 

          The other reality is that there is a hierarchy of homeless. People who either can or are willing to go to a program will be sent in that direction while Housing First is the last resort.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Depends on how you view it. I think it’s easier to help people get off drugs if they have a home and are off the street. Robb’s talk on Monday suggested it was very rare to have homeless people on the street ask for or seek help.

        3. Jim Hoch

          “I think it’s easier to help people get off drugs if they have a home and are off the street.” I have never seen data one way or the other but in 12 step programs they generally believe the opposite with reference to “the gift of desperation”.

          Regardless the neighbors may run out of patience long before this can be proven.

           

           

        4. Jim Hoch

          “Pick your poison – people living on the streets or people living in homes” Tents are cheaper and generally further away. “Out of sight out of mind” 

           

          Really depends on your goal. My goal would be encourage people to find some recovery. Therefore I support group homes but oppose Housing First.

  2. Alan Miller

    Trying to move the homeless out of downtown does not solve the issue.

    There was a long discussion in an area along Third Street on property that is open space owned by AT&T across from Crepeville.  This has been a trouble spot that has been cleared up because the city put it on the property owner to clear up the nuisance.

    This solves the specific problem and overall solves nothing.  When AT&T and G Street were cleared out recently, the homeless went to other locations including our neighborhood.  When E Street Plaza was cleared out last year, there was a large influx of homeless that moved into our neighborhood.  My neighbor to the rear had a two people living in the bushes across the street from her house, and five people living behind her back fence that she didn’t even know were there until I told her.

    We found a solid wooden structure they had built behind her fence that looked like a chicken coop that they were using as a home, all hidden behind a giant pile of dry brush.  One woman in the group would go into blood-curdling screams sometimes at night.  The police explained it was a ten-day cycle they had to go through to get them to move and remove their stuff.  I was marginally OK with that, until I walked by and saw they had candles burning in the wooden structure, next to the giant pile of dry brush and branches, next to a wooden fence.  So I called the fire chief, who checked it out and did said he couldn’t go anything, it was a ten-day cycle.  The imminent threat of conflagration wasn’t enough for the fire chief to remove the camp!

    We did get action, but that’s a long story.  The point is, if people affected get action, it takes ten days minimum, barring an imminent threat, and the homeless then leave that place and move to another.  And the cycle continues.

    the quantity of goods that people are keeping with them, hauling around, would make it prohibitive to use

    This is a huge understatement in some cases.  Our neighborhood had a guy who would collect things from dumpsters all day and pile it all up by his camp.  By the time the then-day-cycle had run out, there was so much stuff that it was spilling over into the nearby streets, and it took an entire dumpster and most a day for a small crew to clean it all up.

  3. Ron

    David:  “It’s hard to see where the city of Davis could purchase housing units and rental subsidies for the chronically homeless?  Doesn’t seem that hard for me.”

    It’s perhaps harder now, since the Families First site has been “designated” for other uses (that could have been provided by UCD).

    1. Don Shor

      Rent subsidies allow the recipient to live in any private rental housing they can afford. Developing more apartments on the site of the Families First property increases the number of private rental units in the city. So in fact, developing that site will make it marginally easier for them to find places to live. It will certainly make it easier than leaving the site vacant and undeveloped as it’s been for some time now.

    2. Ron

      David:  “Not really because Families First wasn’t used for that purpose before.”

      The prior use was similar in nature. (Regardless, it also wasn’t previously used as a site for a megadorm.)

      Again – opportunity cost, which the Vanguard seems intent on ignoring (while simultaneously pointing out such needs).

      1. Don Shor

        More private apartments = more places for people to live. Those who have housing vouchers or rent subsidies will have more choices. Currently they have almost none. There were no serious proposals from anybody to purchase and revamp the site for non-profit housing. I am unaware of any social service agency that had the wherewithal and intention of using that site. So your comment is pointless. There is no opportunity cost if there was no opportunity.

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