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.”
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