The Susanville City Council held a special meeting Monday, Sept. 12 to discuss two items — a possible response to last week’s Lassen Superior Court ruling dissolving the preliminary restraining order issued last year by Lassen County Superior Court Judge Mark Nareau and Susanville’s work on the local homelessness issue.
The council met in closed session to discuss last week’s ruling with its attorney to explore what actions to take next.
Susanville Mayor Quincy McCourt said, “We stand united and the five of us councilmembers provided unanimous direction.”
City attorney Margaret Long reported, “The council has requested the city administrator, Dan Newton, and myself make an effort meet with members of CDCR or the state to discuss further actions and/or mitigations that can be taken in relation to that order, and how to move forward from there. Once we have that information, we will report that back to council and the public.”
Newton said while the purpose of this special meeting was the conference with legal counsel regarding the CCC ruling, “At the staff level we’ve been working on issues regarding homelessness in Susanville and how to address homelessness encampments on the Susan River Trail. So, we’ve done quite a bit of work on that — mostly information gathering and considering planning — and that gives us an opportunity to discuss it publicly and with the council openly and get direction from the council … to ensure we’re on the right track because this is a very time sensitive matter and there’s a lot of interest in the community to address the situation sooner than later.”
Newton said he did not have a presentation for this meeting, but he would have one ready for the council’s Sept. 21 meeting.
McCourt said, he wanted to share one thing that was unique — “This is probably the first time we’re really taken the situation serious and we’ve determined it to be the priority, and so there is a time frame which basically is somewhere between now and ASAP so we can identify things that we can do now as well as the big picture long-term that don’t require us to wait so we can help as many people who need to be helped and we can hope to deter criminals from crime as much as possible. So, staff has been exploring everything and tailoring what they have found to suit the needs of Susanville.”
Councilmember Mendy Schuster, the former mayor, took exception to McCourt’s characterization that this was the first time the council has taken the homelessness issue seriously.
“I’ve taken it seriously,” Schuster said about the issue during her tenure as mayor. “I’ve always been concerned about it.”
Newton said he’d been working with the department heads, especially the Susanville Police Department, recounting the history of the problem two years ago when there were large encampments along the river, but efforts cleaning the river and opening up areas by removing the brush back then helped lessen the problem. He said there was a discussion then about creating an encampment area for the homeless with water and other services, but that never came to fruition.
“Today, the problem is becoming significant again,” Newton said, and members of the community are reporting vandalism and theft allegedly due to homeless individuals along the river. He said for the past three weeks he and Susanville Police Department brass have been meeting the homeless one day a week and “finding out more about their situation.”
He said the SPD soon will begin giving campers 72-hour notice their campsites would be cleaned up. In addition, the city has applied for permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to clear some of the vegetation along the river and remove homeless-made bridges that are blocking the flow of the river. He hoped an expired agreement with CDFW could be renewed within 30 days. And staff is also exploring an ordinance change that would comply with the Boise decision which allows people to sleep in public places if there is no alternative but regulate the hours in which people could sleep along the river.
“We would basically have no camping restrictions that would be enforceable at certain times of the day,” Newton said. “The concept there is that during the nighttime when someone is sleeping outside, they would be able to do so in certain areas of the city. During the day, they couldn’t have their tents set up, they couldn’t have their encampments sprawled out in areas that are specifically identified for community recreation such as the Susan River Trail.”
He said staff was also working with the county, and the ultimate solution is to provide shelter for the homeless, but that may be difficult to achieve for a number of reasons.
Newton said there is currently a large encampment on the south side of the river, and there was a recent fire on private property near there.
“Really, the focus short-term is to address the situation on the river,” Newton said, especially due to environmental concerns.
Shuster said there were state programs that appeared to be offered to the county that could help alleviate the problem. According to the state, Schuster said, nearly a quarter of homeless people suffer mental illness issues and 17 percent suffer substance abuse issues.
So, she said when we talk about homelessness, it’s not just about people who are down and out — “What we’re talking about here are problems in our society.” Citing resent encounters with the homeless, especially near the Pat Murphy Little League Field, she said, “We’ve got to do something immediately.”
Councilmember Russ Brown said all the investigating and looking into is great, “but I’m of the mindset that right now we enforce whatever we can legally. If there’s no camping along the river and the trail, let’s move them out. Basically, if it’s within our jurisdiction, let’s handle the problem. While we’re looking forward to all these other things, but let’s do what we can do right now.”
Councilmember Thomas Herrera said this is a problem statewide, and he and Newton have attended many classes on the issue. He said he agreed with Schuster that mental illness may be the biggest issue with the homeless in Susanville. He apologized to the police and fire departments that have been dealing with the homeless issues .
“We have to do something immediately,” Herrera said. “It’s about creating a system of accountability. All of us need to be held accountable for our actions, and that’s what this is about. And so, I think the time to do something is now. Time to stop talking about it and just do it. Yes, we are bound by the law and we’re going to follow the law and all our officers are bound to the law, they swore an oath, we all did, however, our community cannot sustain this type of crime and these types of actions … ”
Mmembers of the public crowded city hall and many offered their comments about 45 minutes. Employees from Crossroad Ministries said they have beds available for the homeless and even provide shelter for those who are under the influence if they are not belligerent. They said Crossroads is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution. They said in addition to providing shelter, it’s provided gas money and bus fare to help some stranded people move on.