[Humboldt County] The Librarian and the Cop: Struggling to Serve Eureka’s Homeless Population on the Streets and in the Stacks

Blog note: this article references grand jury reports. 

Humboldt County stretches over 4,000 square miles across rugged landscapes and coastlines. Peppered throughout are 11 libraries and a bookmobile that serve the nearly 140,000 people that live here. Libraries throughout history have been a place where people can find solitude and seclusion, place where one can find a plethora of entertainment and information, services and events, books and educational classes. It is also a place where some of our more marginalized community members can find a dry place to be during the wet months of winter.

Two years ago the Outpost looked at the Eureka Main Library and how it has been an epicenter for homeless interactions. The previous story highlighted issues that include an array of syringes found in the parking lot, people sleeping in front of library doors, unruly patrons, and a number of incidents that left library staff dealing with an abundance of stress and concerned for their safety.

Our libraries employ 64 full- and part-time employees and have around 200 volunteers. In the past 12 months nearly 600,000 books have been checked out, and Nick Wilczek, current library director for Humboldt County, said adult mysteries are by far the most popular genre. Wilczek has been the library director for a little over a year. Originally from Kentucky, Wilczek has been involved with libraries for over 10 years and got his start working in libraries in Lexington, Kentucky at the age of 28.

“I knew I wanted to do something with books and literature,” Wilczek told the Outpost from his office overlooking the Humboldt Bay. “I started a career in hotel management at the Hyatt in Lexington and found that I really loved serving and interacting with people and customer service. So, the public library seemed like the perfect overlap of the two things, of getting to do book stuff and being a community servant.”

Wilczek came to Humboldt in 2012 to work at the Arcata library, where he spent four years before heading up to Oregon for a year and a half. His love of serving the community goes hand-in-hand with the mission of the library.

“The role of the library is to use the tools we have — that’s books, staff expertise, connections we have with the community, programs — to address the needs and aspirations of the community, or that is the goal: to make the community a better place with the tools we have,” Wilczek said.

The services the library currently offers vary from fairs and storytime for children to adult classes geared towards computer literacy and American Sign Language. There are “Dumb Movies with Smart People,” knitting sessions and book groups, wifi and movie rentals, and even an event this September that will celebrate the history of country music.

The Eureka Main Library helps to document the history of our community as well. It holds tax records from as far back as 1863, yearbooks as old as 1901, and newspaper clippings from as far back as 1859. A May 7, 1859, article in the Humboldt Times details the early stages of the library opening and how two directors were in San Francisco “making arrangements for the purchase of more books and for the supply of periodicals. These, also, we are informed are expected to arrive in a short time, when we shall soon have finally established at Eureka a most useful institution, to be longer without which would be disgraceful to the place.”

The original Eureka library was private and opened on May 10, 1859. A $10 share bought you “an inexhaustible source of gratification,” and a resource that was hoped to “cultivate in this community a more intelligent habit of thought and reflection,” the article continued.

The Eureka library became a public institution with the passing of the Rogers Free Library Act in 1878. The introduction of this bill helped make the Eureka library the first free public library in California funded by property taxes, and it opened on May 11, 1878. Property taxes still help fund Humboldt County libraries, which currently have a $3.84 million operating budget — or just 0.8 percent of the County’s total operating budget. (Find a breakdown of of the library’s current budget at this link.)

The previous story about the Eureka Main Library described it as a “microcosm,” or a place that is emblematic of its surroundings. Its surroundings consist of nearly nearly 600 people who are struggling in the battle of late-stage capitalism, a system that has left the mentally ill and drug addicted to fend for themselves. In simpler terms, Eureka has about 653 people experiencing homelessness, according to the most recent point-in-time count.

“Since that article has come out we have built a really wonderful relationship with [the Eureka Police Department],” Wilczek said. “We have a security guard who is here during all open library hours, and we’ve been working on staff trainings about working with different populations.”

One of the trainings library staff takes part in is called “Homeless Library,” where they learn effective ways for communicating with members of the homeless population. There are 5-6 classes in the Homeless Library training and all of them are based online.

“[The classes] are strategies for empathy-driven enforcement and self regulation. A lot of it is about de-escalation and mitigating events before they turn into bigger situations,” said Chris Cooper, assistant director of library services.

Some of the problems identified in the past are still present, but based on interviews with Wilczek, it seems like it is not on the same scale. When asked about any serious issues or problems the library faces with the homeless population, Wilczek said nothing that happens at the library is out of the norm of what happens throughout Eureka.

“I think the library is very representative of where we live,” Wilczek said. “My interactions with homeless members really are as varied as with folks that are housed. I find that most of my interactions with all different kinds of people are largely really positive.”

To help mitigate some of the previous issues such as unruly patrons and drug use, Wilczek said the library has established a working relationship with the Eureka Police Department — in particular with Sergeant Leonard La France and Old Town Officer Brian Ross. La France is in charge of the Community Safety Enhancement Team. CSET started on July 1, 2018, and currently has five officers, a social worker and the team hoping to add a homeless outreach worker in the near future.

So far this year there have been around 300 proactive policing patrols at the library. La France said these are essentially foot patrols and conversations with patrons and staff at the library and aren’t generated from calls for services. Since January 1, there have been six petty thefts and one person brandishing a weapon at the library. La France said there are issues at times with syringe litter in Clara May Berry Park, the small playground area just east of the library, but that, “We are seeing less syringes on the streets than we have before.”

He said there seems to be some connection between the syringes found on the property and the proximity to HACHR, but pointed to the changes and improvements HACHR has provided to the area, such as syringe litter clean up. He didn’t have a good solution to help eliminate all syringe litter but pointed to the importance of addressing people as individuals.

“We are dealing with addicted people and common sense is just out the window,” La France told the Outpost. “If you address the actual user and address the underlying cause of the problem — to help fix the person, give them resources to find sobriety, and support them after sobriety — that will significantly help reduce the need for syringes. But that is a pretty big task when you look at our population.”

However, CSET has already had some success at helping people struggling with addiction and homelessness. La France said CSET has completed 38 “handoffs” to the Waterfront Recovery Center of people looking to beat their addictions. He said he didn’t know how many people completed the program and stayed clean because of patient confidentiality laws, but he did say the opportunity for people to get clean is a benefit to the public.

“People on the streets literally come to us and say, ‘Hey, I want to get clean,’” La France said as he walked the streets of Eureka.

His approach to law enforcement comes after more than a decade of seeing how simply throwing people in jail isn’t healing addiction or mental illness, he said. He wants to address the underlying issues that contribute to homelessness and work toward a long term solution.

“It’s one person at a time, and that is how we have to approach the homeless,” La France said. “It is an individualized approach and balancing accountability. If their behavior is criminal or something not conducive to society, then obviously we can address it from an accountability standpoint. But you have to think beyond that.”

When La France patrols Old Town, he takes careful consideration to say hello to as many people as he can. As he neared the corner of Third and A streets during an interview with the Outpost on the afternoon of July 17, an older man with unkempt salt and pepper hair started shouting. The shouts weren’t directed at anyone in particular as he wandered into the street.

“Hey, Robert,” La France shouted, resulting in the man immediately calming down.

He has found that getting to know people personally and having a positive presence in trouble areas can help clear up a lot of problems. He said EPD is moving forward in a positive way to address homeless issues with compassion.

However, a recent Civil Grand Jury report found Eureka has a “kind of carrot and stick approach, but with an emphasis on the stick.” The report essentially says that criminalizing the homeless is unproductive and contributes to “creating more debt through fines,” and provides a barrier to housing, thus perpetuating homelessness. When asked about this report, La France said he couldn’t comment on it but that the City of Eureka plans to issue a statement in the near future.

La France’s approach to interacting with the homeless seems to be more in line with recommendations listed in the Grand Jury report. La France himself recognizes that the “arrest them all” approach is problematic along with the social media comments that call for such.

“Okay, they go to jail, they hang out for 30 minutes and then they are going to be back on the street. Granted, it may put a band-aid on the problem, but let’s find out how to actually solve the problem,” La France said.

In order to find out what some of those problems are EPD conducted a survey of 190 people experiencing homeless. The survey, spearheaded by Chief Steve Watson, found around 55 percent have been homeless for more than years, 57 percent were treated for or diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and 57 percent said low income is the main barrier to getting housing. The amount of resources to help the homeless here in Humboldt County — such as housing, long term mental health facilities, and supportive housing with case workers on site — is also a barrier and have been lacking for some time.

A 2015 Civil Grand Jury report found a “lack of coordination between the City of Eureka and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, as well as the lack of action by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, was a common theme and source of frustration.” The 2019 report also found “a lack of communication and coordination” between the agencies involved with helping the homeless and it is “hindering” the goal of ending the housing crisis. Low-income housing needs have also failed to be met as the private sector has routinely built housing for the moderate and above income groups even though 70 percent of Humboldt households can’t afford a median priced home.

Salvation Army helped feed “transients” during the 1930s here in Eureka. A March 21, 1932, article in the Humboldt Standard mentioned “transients seeking aid … will be allowed only two meals, instead of four,” by the Salvation Army because the “transient problem is becoming more serious at the present time,” thus limiting resources.

In our current days, Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA) has stepped up to fill the void where a social safety net should be. They recently received a grant to build a portable shower facility for the homeless. In an interview for a previous Outpost story, Nezzie Wade, one of the founders of AHHA, said good hygiene is one of the biggest issues faced by people experiencing homelessness. Wilczek wrote a letter of support for AHHA, stating he would consider the library as a regular location for the trailer.

Libraries and wealth inequality have been linked together for quite some time. Back in the early 1900s, Andrew Carnegie — the robber baron/titan of industry (pick your own title based on your outlook of capitalism and wealth distribution) of Carnegie Steel — started donating vast amounts of money toward the funding of public libraries in order to clean up his public image after a labor uprising in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. The Eureka Library benefited from Carnegie’s PR stunt was upgraded in 1902 by a $20,000 grant from Carnegie himself. The renovation cost $20,840.75 and outfitted the new space with local redwood pillars, a tiled floor in the atrium and the 10,000 square foot building was built in the classical revival style. It served the nearly 7,500 Eurekans in 1904 until 1972 when the library was moved to the basement of the County Courthouse. The current Eureka Main Library was built in 1995 and the style is emblematic of the early 20th century American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Wealth inequality in the early 1900s mirrors what it is today: In 1928, the year before the Great Depression, the wealthiest 10 percent took home nearly 50 percent of the nation’s income and today only the 0.00025 percent — or the richest 400 Americans — have more wealth than the bottom 60 percent, according to a study by Gabriel Zucman, an economist at UC Berkeley. Actually when comparing the numbers of the past to the present day, wealth inequality is much more prominent.

Given this great divide of wealth, it is no wonder that those who have been left behind in society flock to institutions like public libraries as a place of refuge. Sergeant La France said the Eureka Main Library has turned into a de facto day center for the homeless.

“They are part of the community,” La France said. “They have a right to be there. It just happens to be they don’t live in a house.”

La France is currently working toward obtaining a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management from Union Institute and University — an online institution based in Ohio — and has routinely said he wants to address the underlying causes of homelessness even though it is not a quick fix.

“If someone is committing a crime, like stealing from a store because they have an addiction, [the addiction] is the underlying cause of the crime,” La France said. “Some days I see a physical improvement, some days I don’t. It’s challenging and you feel like you take five steps forward and one step back.”

But La France is committed to making his community a better place, something that Wilczek also wants to do. He believes that by using the tools the library has to offer, he can be a part of the solutions that Eureka and the County faces. Wilczek said the library is more than just a warehouse for books; it is a tool the community can use.

“I think our job is to look at the goals of our community — economic development for example, the housing crisis for example — and take the tools at the library and try and figure out how we can help the County achieve those goals. I think that moving forward, libraries in general will be taking on more of those roles. You will see libraries existing far outside of checking books out, which will always be one of the primary things, but I don’t think that is necessarily the end-all be-all of the library’s mission.”

From their inception, libraries have always been an institution aimed at bettering the community, and Wilczek is there to guide the libraries’ path.

“In the history of public libraries, it is our role is to help people improve their social circumstances, whether it be education or jobs or cultural interests,” Wilczek said. “[The library] is a way for me to feel that I am giving back to places that I love.”

July 26, 2019

Lost Coast Outpost

By Freddy Brewster

County: