A Call for Help
Last week a call for help went out to California law enforcement departments seeking successful strategies other police departments have used to address homelessness, loitering and aggressive panhandling.
Fresno, like most California Cities, is seeking alternative solutions to a very complex and on-going problem associated with homelessness: loitering and aggressive panhandling.
A few years ago, the City of Fresno lost a federal class-action lawsuit over the destruction of property, while attempting to clean-up an illegal encampment. The lawsuit contended that Fresno had violated the constitutional rights of homeless people, who were illegally camped, when the City cleaned up the property.
The Federal Court in Fresno found that these clean-ups were illegal and violated the fourth and fifth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The City of Fresno was forced to pay $1.5 million in damages, and $850,000 in attorney’s fees; a total of $2.35 million.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michael Risher said, "The Court’s ruling and the settlement should send a strong message to other cities throughout California that if they violate the rights of their most vulnerable residents, they will be held accountable."
Following this lawsuit, the City of Fresno backed away from homelessness enforcement.
As you can imagine with less enforcement activities, the City began to experience significant increases in problems like public urination and defecation, large piles of trash, and open drug sales and use. But the problems did not stop there; Fresno also experienced a significant increase in violence, including two murders and several shootings.
To reduce violence within the homeless community, the Fresno Police Department made more than 100 felony arrests, and seized over 20 guns – including 2 assault rifles last month.
Here in Ukiah
Each autumn, our community experiences a significant increase in homeless and transient populations. Social Services numbers indicate that they provide food and other aid to as many as two thousand extra people during these months, and here at the Ukiah Police Department (UPD) we respond to an upsurge in calls for assistance and complaints surrounding quality of life issues similar to those faced in Fresno: public urination and defecation, large piles of trash, and open drug sales and use.
Most recently, these quality of life issues have begun to occur within the neighborhoods, churches and apartments west of Dora Street.
It is also during these autumn months that we see an upsurge in crimes involving the transient population: dog bite attacks, felony assaults, and even our last murder. Along with the increase in violent attacks, our officers become extra alert because we see an increase in attacks on police officers during this time period. Just last year alone, eight Ukiah police officers were injured during violent struggles with transients and those on parole and probation.
One of the most concerning connections I see is the connection between the increase in transient populations, methamphetamine use, and violence.
Transients come to Ukiah for a variety of reasons. Our community is known for its generosity. Transients tell us it’s easy to obtain welfare services, but most transients say that the main reason they make their way to Ukiah is because of marijuana.
Finding the Solutions:
Even though many communities throughout California are trying to find ways to solve homelessness and transient-related problems, the solutions to these problems remain difficult.
Here in Ukiah, one thing I think would help is to stop giving transients handouts. In fact, I believe that our community’s handouts are making problems worse.
When I talk about transients, I am referring to people who choose a nomadic lifestyle that often includes using alcohol and illicit drugs. Under the influence of these substances, transients commit crimes such as panhandling, burglary, and assault; they tax our community resources like mental health and services for our homeless; and they allow their aggressive, poorly controlled dogs to harm others. These behaviors affect the safety of people in Ukiah and put our police officers at risk.
I understand why kind-hearted people give to those who are less fortunate than themselves, and I applaud that. But if you really want to help our community, many wonderful non-profit organizations could put your dollars to good use helping people who are working hard to get back on their feet.
When I talk about transients, I am not referring to people who are clean and sober, who have temporarily found themselves homeless as a result of a tough economy or some bad choices. These people desperately need our help, and I’d encourage you to help by donating to a non-profit organization.
Transients do not seek services provided by homeless shelters and food pantries, often because these places require recipients to be working on their sobriety, be non-violent, and follow the rules of the of the agency helping them.
The more people give to transients, the more they encourage the problems that come with this lifestyle. This translates into more violence in our city and more police time spent breaking up fights and arresting transients for the crimes they’ve committed.
What’s the best way to handle the situation? First, stop providing handouts. Giving money to transients does not help our community, and it puts you in direct contact with people who may be dangerous. Transients use money to buy alcohol, methamphetamine, or other drugs. The use of alcohol and drugs leads to violence. If transients can’t afford alcohol and drugs, our community would be safer.
Instead of handing out money, give your donations to the agencies providing direct services to the homeless. This will assure that your dollars are spent on assistance, not alcohol and drugs. These key services include: HOT MEALS (Plowshares, 1346 S. State); GROCERIES (UCC Food Bank, 888 N. State); ESSENTIAL SERVICES (Ford Street Project, 139 Ford St); SHELTER (Buddy Eller Center, 201 Brush St).
If you observe illegal activity by transients (or anyone else), please report that activity to our department as soon as possible. For in-progress emergencies please all the UPD at 911 or 463-6262. You can also provide our officers with crime tips at www.ukiahpolice.com.
While not giving handouts to transients won’t solve all our transient problems, it will help.
Please consider directing your generosity to those who provide help to law-abiding people who are down on their luck.
As always, our mission at UPD is simple: to make Ukiah as safe as possible. If you have any suggestions or comments about how we can improve, please feel free to call me, complete our online survey, or leave a crime tip on our website: www.ukiahpolice.com.