by Kheven LaGrone
In December 2019 and January 2020, the Solano County Board of Supervisors met to discuss buying a former group home to use as a homeless shelter in Vacaville, a city in Solano County. Angry neighbors took over the meeting.
They felt the county did not give them proper notice of the project. They accused the county of sneaking a homeless shelter with potential drug addicts, felons and child molesters near their families. Neighbors verbally attacked supervisors and supervisors verbally attacked back. Chairwoman Erin Hannigan repeatedly threatened to stop the meeting.
Most of the neighbors’ anger was based on hearsay. The board repeatedly tried to calm and correct them. The board told the neighbors that people would be screened before coming to the shelter.
People coming to the shelter were between homes; they just needed a space to stay while they got their lives together and could find more permanent housing. Felons, drug addicts and child molesters would not be allowed in the shelter. In fact, the board expected most of the people to be homeless veterans.
In fact, Supervisor Skip Thomson stated that he had informational literature in his office about the project, but that no one had called to get a copy. (In all fairness, I tried to contact Mr. Thomson and the city’s media person. No one returned my calls.)
Finally, the board relented and canceled the project. They were visibly frustrated. For at least one of them, this project had become personal. Supervisor Thomson had been personally talking to a homeless person. Thomson did not want to see the man spend another winter living under a bridge.
The project was withdrawn based on an unfair vilification of the people who would have been serviced by the project.
After withdrawing the project, the board directed the county administrator to work with the City of Vacaville to find a new solution to the housing crisis. She hesitated. She then reminded the board of the frustration of trying to work with the City of Vacaville in the past. The board remembered.
The board then told the residents if they wanted to address Vacaville’s housing crisis, they would have to go directly to their city. One supervisor said that he didn’t want Vacaville’s homeless to have to go to other cities because Vacaville wasn’t serving them.
The project was withdrawn based on an unfair vilification of the people who would have been serviced by the project. After the meeting, Danny Wells of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, wrote in an opinion to the Daily Republic:
“Having worked closely with the homeless in Vacaville for many years, here is the dilemma from my window: Of the approximately 70 homeless in our city (yes, we know who they are by name and have cell phone numbers for most of them), those seen on our streets, representing about 25 percent of the total homeless population, suffer from extreme mental health issues, are often filthy, scary, unstable and suffer from multiple addictions.
“These are the visible homeless, and in the minds of the community become the poster-children for defining all people without homes. Ironically, this group never accepts housing when offered and will not come for free community meals or support services. They simply wander the streets, pushing shopping carts with their belongings.
“On the other end of the scale, about one-third of Vacaville’s homeless population are people who have fallen on hard financial times. Most of these have jobs and income, but not enough to afford housing. One of them wears a suit and tie every day and has two part-time jobs.
“This group of homeless residents is invisible. When you see them walking down the street or riding their bikes, they are mostly clean, dressed and not considered a threat by anyone. You would never know they are homeless.”
The week after the county dropped the project, Vacaville held its monthly homeless roundtable meeting. Vacaville holds a homeless roundtable on the third Wednesday of every month. The meeting on Jan. 15, 2020, was attended mainly by people who work in homeless support and the Vacaville police department.
According to Police Chief John Carli, people are not homeless for any one simple reason; therefore, Vacaville serves each homeless person based on his history. Vacaville did not believe that a homeless community is properly served simply by counting shelter beds.
Officer Aaron Dahl gave examples of how he directly served the homeless community by knowing a person’s names and history. He mentioned a woman who was homeless because she had debts. Once she pays her debts, she can pay for a place.
According to Dahl, Vacaville would rather put people in hotels and not little houses. He mentioned that he had a special relationship with a motel owner. He often took homeless people there. Dahl also mentioned a young man who had a job at a fast food restaurant. The police got the man a bicycle and a jacket and found him a temporary place to stay. The young man is now making plans for the future.
According to Chief Carli, if addressing the homeless issue were simply based on beds and numbers, they might have to place a drug-addicted person next to a family.
Chief Carli believes that Vacaville’s treatment of its homeless citizens complies with Martin v. Boise. He made clear that they do not arrest people for being homeless. Besides, arresting a person for being homeless would be time-consuming and pointless.
Vacaville’s handling of the homeless issue seems reasonable. So why is there a conflict between them and the county? According to Vacaville Councilmember Nolan Sullivan, a major part of the problem is that roles of the city and county are not being clarified. There is no understanding of whose problem is what.
Sullivan told the roundtable that Vacaville’s mayor was working on creating an ad hoc committee to work on the homelessness issues. The plan was that the ad hoc committee would include the county supervisors. However, not everyone at the meeting was excited about this news. The idea of this ad hoc committee had been floated before, but the City didn’t follow through.
Kheven LaGrone, investigative reporter, activist, writer, artist and curator, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.