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Guest Post: Homeless in Wine Country - The Killing of Napa's Homeless Plan

by Igor Sill
November 11, 2019

Igor Sill is the Winemaker for Sill Family Vineyards  

I was walking downtown Napa the other day and the sight was seriously depressing--homeless folks begging for money on the streets, littering and housing themselves in hidden areas. Very sad really. The thought that I could be the one begging, openly defecating on the street side, and pushing a rickety stolen shopping cart has kept me thinking about Napa’s homeless problem and why the problem continues to escalate.

Officials estimate there are 960 homeless individuals in Napa County, with roughly 650 hard-core street people within Napa's city limits. Reports show that numerous homeless people (and seven who were previously homeless) died in Napa, mainly from the long-term effects of drugs and alcohol. Napa may be a little off-the-beaten path, but the rise of homeless migration from Oakland, Vallejo and San Francisco to friendly Napa is clearly evident. We’ve all read the horrific and tragic stories of Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara replete with dangerously aggressive beggars, open, hard-core drug use and large amounts of human waste on the streets.

From a recent SFGate article: “Clusters of drug addicts and alcoholics soak up the sun in a triangular park near downtown Napa. Some are cranked-up on methamphetamine. Others beat a path to the local liquor store, leaving a trail of empty bottles. Some use nearby bushes and lawns as rest rooms. Many are mentally ill -- "self- medicating" their mood swings with pot, booze and heroin. Some are occasionally violent. All are down on their luck.”

Although obtaining an accurate, recent count is difficult, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates, 38% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and 26% abuse other drugs. Clearly alcohol and substance abuse is much more prevalent among the homeless than the general population. Another contributor, mental illness also impairs a person’s ability to be resilient and resourceful, clouding thinking and impairing judgment, thus, they too are at greater risk of experiencing homelessness. Homelessness, in turn, amplifies poor mental health.

Our veterans returning from service face unbelievable challenges that most of the civilian world just can’t imagine. A loss of sense of purpose, loss of mission, loss of daily drive, routine and being part of a larger community contributes to their desperation, homelessness, and all too frequently, suicide.

The problem is certainly complex, and can be segmented in several categories of the homeless, but the math is relatively simple. We have well over 2 million households in California that qualify at the poverty level with only about 664,000 low income housing units in the state.

From Will Luden’s Revolution 2.0™ website which focuses on deliberate solution-seeking processes to address key issues, such as Napa’s homeless: “The problem is that this is a very difficult issue, and politicians don’t have the stomach for what needs to be done. Study after study shows that drug addiction, mental health issues and look-away law enforcement are common elements in areas with large and growing homeless populations. Add in free food vouchers, free needle exchanges, and in a growing number of areas, showers and free drugs, and you no longer have the homeless, you have permanent street people. The streets become their home.”

In Napa, exact numbers aren’t readily available, but an estimate was given between 100 and 200, according to Brandon Gardner, Napa Police Department’s homeless outreach specialist. Starting last fall, two vacant lots flanking California Drive north of downtown became home to transients for nearly six months, according to Napa Police. “It looks like our numbers are going to be higher than last year,” Gardner said.

“Although some people have been housed in the last year, more people have taken to the street, said Rodney Seib, shelter coordinator with Abode Services. On Wednesday morning, he encountered about six more people that he didn’t know. While Napa Police had not linked the presence of the encampment to a crime uptick in the “alphabet streets” – the residential district bracketed by Jefferson Street to the east and Highway 29 on the west David Aten, whose backyard on Muller Drive abuts Napa Creek about three blocks southwest of where homeless people had been living and a neighborhood resident since 2002, did not hesitate to connect it with what he called a spate of property crimes over the past two years. A car break-in, a swiped fire pit and the theft of landscaping equipment are among the incidents Aten said he and his husband Guy Barstad have endured. They fit with reports from nearby residents of similar incidents, including break-ins and squatting in vacant homes that are frequently shared on the neighborhood-focused Nextdoor social media platform. “It’s a slick little camp,” Seib said. It was so well hidden he almost didn’t see it. “You walk right by it.” Homeless and crime have a very real intimate relationship. What reveals the unmistakable connection between homelessness and crime is that where you find homelessness, you find crime.

Many individuals on the streets are forced to become gypsies – either re-parking their cars, vans, RVs every few days or moving their campsite out of one declared off limits area to another. Some people get resourceful, making walls around their campsite out of plants and other natural materials. Or they put their campsite underneath a canopy of trees, which also act as coat racks. “Some people have even placed booby traps around their campsites so that they’re alerted when someone is near.”

Adding to the concerns, Californians recently experienced a hepatitis outbreak along with destructive wildfires in Los Angeles, both linked to the homeless.

It’s clear that the homeless today do not have adequate access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene and that lack of access carries health consequences. An outbreak of hepatitis A, a highly contagious liver disease, among homeless people and drug users in San Diego in 2017 was blamed on lack of access to public restrooms, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Over a 10 month period, 584 people fell ill, nearly 400 were hospitalized and 20 died.

When one looks at the root causes of homelessness with the ambition to solve them, lack of affordable housing becomes one of the primary issues. The homeless simply don’t have enough money to pay rent, even for the cheapest dives available, and housing prices in Napa continues to rise. Homelessness across Napa has steadily increased in recent years, frustrating government officials seeking solutions to reduce the number of people living on our streets.

John Cena, the WWE Superstar and actor found a way to assist homeless veterans by supporting the work of the FitOps Foundation a group having a meaningful impact on homeless veterans – “they are saving lives by inspiring veterans to find new purpose through fitness, which allows them to then share their mission with others," said Cena. "I am so proud to be a part of this life changing foundation, and to support them in any way I can – offering training, education, counseling, support and mentorship.” And, jobs.

So, Napa could go about creating more jobs, providing job/trade training programs, redistribute the wealth, improve education, socialize health care, essentially redesign its entire political and economic systems to ensure that everybody can afford housing--or, simply participate in former Governor Jerry Brown’s No Place Like Home (NPLH) Program. The NPLH Program dedicates up to $2 billion in bond proceeds to invest in the creation of permanent supportive housing for persons with a serious mental illness or who are experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or who are at risk of chronic homelessness.

On January 29, 2019 Napa’s Supervisors adopted a resolution to participate in No Place like Home by incorporating it into an updated version of its Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness program. Throughout Napa’s Homeless Plan Update process, three guiding principles were adopted with “the primary goal of making homelessness a rare, brief and non-recurring experience in Napa.”

The guiding principles of Napa’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness are well defined and represent ambitious, well thought through goals, however, implementation and execution of such remains stalled. One of the many hurdles representing the challenges faced by Napa’s well-intentioned plan stems from Napa’s own community reactions.

After the city in 2012 approved a 57-unit affordable housing plan drawn up by Bridge Housing Corp. of San Francisco, a local environmental coalition quickly formed to file a lawsuit against the city in Napa County Superior Court and block the project. Activists alleged the housing would increase traffic congestion and littering while threatening salmon and steelhead habitats in nearby Salvador Creek. A judge voided Napa’s approval of the housing plan as well as a revised version of the project, requiring Bridge to seek a comprehensive and costly environmental impact study first. Bridge eventually canceled its project in 2016.

Governor Newsom signed several new bills last month that will "give local governments even more tools to confront this crisis." One new law that takes effect immediately lets Los Angeles by-pass parts of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to build supportive housing and shelters. Another lets projects that will turn old hotels into housing by-pass certain CEQA reviews through 2025.

Critics of CEQA argue that it is being used as a weapon to delay development of community projects by activists who find it unfavorable. Another piece of legislation signed by Newsom exempts projects built with $2 billion in voter-approved bonds from these environmental rules. The Sierra Club, an environmental group, opposed the legislation.

“I applaud state and local efforts to house our homeless,” said Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa. “It’s especially important that we look out for our homeless veterans who put their lives on the line in the service of our country.”

Thank you Senator Dodd. And many thanks to Napa Supervisors’ for creating and prioritizing the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief and non-recurring experience in Napa.”

Let us all support Napa’s End Homeless program. Its time for common sense to prevail and for us to do the right thing for Napa’s homeless, our veterans, our tax-paying community, our economy, our businesses, our tourists and our workers.

Igor Sill
Napa, CA

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