Note: This is part one of a series. Subsequent articles will feature perspectives and new programs from the broader homeless helping community and an interview with Dr. Robert Marbut about his national impacts.
FORT BRAGG, 2/14/23 — Fort Bragg’s visible homeless camps are gone, the panhandling has all but stopped downtown or outside McDonald’s and a respite center is nearly ready to open behind Adventist Health Mendocino Coast Hospital to treat people before they hit rock bottom.
Things have changed drastically for those living on the streets of Fort Bragg since 2019, including the recent opening of The Plateau, the first ever housing project in town built with a special area for supported housing for former street people.
Homeless numbers in the state of California are rising, but that appears to be the opposite of what is happening in Fort Bragg. How has Fort Bragg managed to buck the trend?
Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell says the Care Response Unit (CRU) at the police department, which began in July, is at the heart of a new approach. The unit consists of two social workers who contact those who are homeless in an attempt to get them services while keeping them off the streets and out of jail.
Norvell says the CRU is crucial to continuing the momentum for both homeless and the town’s merchants and economy. But funding for the program will run out in March. Rather than ratchet down the program —or lose it altogether — Norvell would like to see the CRU increased from two to four workers. He has been contacting state representatives in search of the money, but says priorities have changed.
The program grew partly out of the suggestions of Robert Marbut, PhD, one of the nation’s best known and most controversial homeless experts. In an interview, Marbut said he is now using Fort Bragg as a model for how communities can get more people off their streets. After returning to Fort Bragg to see what was happening for himself, Marbut gives credit to a unique approach being taken by Norvell and the city and the Fort Bragg Police Department under Chief Neil Cervenka.
“I’ve already suggested to several other cities that they check out how Fort Bragg is doing it,” said Marbut, many of whose suggestions the city has been following for several years.
Marbut has consulted for over 1000 cities, counties and organizations; he wrote a report for the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in 2018. The report created a furor but also changed how homeless services are delivered, especially in Fort Bragg. While Marbut’s approach is to use police pressure to clean up the streets, it also calls for real alternatives for everyone to obtain rehabilitation and mental health treatment. It is also focused on treating local homeless locally but moving others on; part of the program is helping non-locals find family or supportive networks out of county.
Marbut likes the unique way the CRU and communication works in Fort Bragg.The city has tailor-made its own approach, combining Marbut’s advice with that of other advisors and reports from across the political spectrum. Fort Bragg has made a major commitment to deal with local homeless while sending traveling homeless back to where they come from, something Marbut emphasizes. The CRU unit administers the “Homeward Bound” program.
“Homeward Bound has funds available to purchase bus tickets or gas for those with vehicles to get them to where they want to go,” said Fort Bragg Police Chief Neil Cervenka
“The only recent change as of August 2022 is that the CRU is now required to speak with someone on the other end that will support the person when they arrive. As Dr. Marbut reported, the greatest chance of success is to have a support system. If they are homeless here, they will be homeless where they are going unless action is taken to prevent it. Just putting them on a bus to wherever they want to go with nothing on the other end only creates a problem for someone else and leaves that person in the same situation they were in here,” Cervenka said.
Marbut explained his often challenged positions and misunderstandings of his approach in an hour and half long interview with the Mendocino Voice. (The last part of this series will feature Marbut and the history of his report to the BOS.) He became an even bigger lightning rod for critics when he became the homeless czar for then-president Donald Trump; he also served President Joe Biden. While Marbut fires up conservatives with harsh talk about tough love, his ideas are way more nuanced than anything in the public debate. For example, his “housing fourth” motto was created as an alternative to “housing first” and often enrages liberals and mainstream homeless advocates. But “Housing First” actually became a battle cry in the George W. Bush Administration and originated from policies and ideas in the administration of his father. Dr. Marbut led George H.W Bush’s early Thousand Points of Light campaign, which advocated many compassionate conservatism principles he now seemingly opposes. Marbut says his approach has evolved over the five decades he has worked with the homeless. Recently Marbut spent a full day exploring Fort Bragg and was amazed at the progress that has been made.
“When I was last in Fort Bragg in 2019,” he said, “I got hassled by panhandlers at McDonald’s, and there was a large homeless camp out behind McDonald’s and homeless camps found all around Fort Bragg.” On his recent visit he found the camps and panhandlers all gone.
Marbut said Fort Bragg’s approach is a winner because of how the city has integrated police, CRU and code enforcement responses.
“I’ve been bragging about Fort Bragg to others,” he continued. “There is a lot of crafting in the Fort Bragg approach that other communities could benefit from looking at.” Marbut was interviewed by phone while speaking about the same issues in the city of Temple, Texas, after leaving Fort Bragg. During the same week he revisited the Mendocino Coast city, he had been in Phoenix, AZ and Connecticut. He emphasized this trip was a follow-up “on his own dime.”
“I’ve seen mayors really mess up in dealing with the homeless. If you read the clippings about my work across the country you can see I do not hesitate in calling out a mayor for knuckleheaded moves. But the opposite is true here. The mayor and the police chief are both on the right track, and they are working together in a way I have seldom seen in my career. In other places, I have had the mayor ask me to tell the chief something and the chief ask me to make a point with the mayor. I tell them, that’s not my job to be a messenger for people who can’t communicate. Here, these two men are on the same page, and that’s a big reason why things are working so well.”
Marbut said launching the response to homeless camps and people in crisis all in one place is a very smart move.
“In many places, they have people responding from two or three different locations, but in Fort Bragg, the police, the CRU unit and code enforcement work together seamlessly. That makes a huge difference.”
In other jurisdictions, the CRU is called the CRT, or Crisis Response Team. These teams have become a major part of law enforcement, boosted by changes made to policing motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests over police shootings. Marbut says the teams are not all as successful as Fort Bragg. He said they are less effective if they enable the homeless to stay on the streets and do not push mental health and substance abuse services. They can also fail in the other direction if they are too much of an arm of law enforcement and thus avoided by homeless people. Marbut said Fort Bragg has found an effective middle-range approach.
Mayor Norvell explained how the CRU team diverts homeless from the streets into programs. “We find you on the street, whether it’s our CRU team, driving around looking for new faces or our police department runs into somebody then refers that person to CRU, which goes out and reaches out to that person and says, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re doing in town. Here’s our services. How can we help you?’ Instead of waiting for these folks to reach out to services, we’re actually reaching out to them, and it’s working better because we’re getting more people involved and more people into services. We’re getting people into rehab. We’re getting people into permanent housing, and we’re getting people started on the process of turning their lives around.”
Cervenka described how CRU, patrol officers and code enforcement work together to clear homeless camps.“Camps are now addressed in the following way: Officers make contact, inform them of the law and of CRU resources. Code Enforcement follows quickly with posting the property to vacate in accordance with the law. CRU responds with them to offer immediate services. Code Enforcement follows a legal process to remove the camp, and Public Works (or an owner of private property) assists to do the clean-up. CRU takes care of those desiring services. Patrol enforces the law and takes action if necessary.”
The CRU has also been instrumental in removing the persistent panhandlers, at McDonald’s, downtown and to a lesser degree those hanging around Safeway.“Officers are encouraged to contact all panhandlers as soon as they see them or receive a complaint,” Cervanka said. “Panhandlers are informed of CRU services and their information is forwarded to CRU for follow-up. A key point of CRU is they work in the field and proactively seek out panhandlers and homeless. They identify needs and barriers and immediately begin to address those issues. Now that the gaps are filled and barriers are reduced because of CRU, enforcement by officers leads to less incidents.”
In many places, CRT teams are always accompanied by police; Marbut worried about publishing the fact that in Fort Bragg the CRU teams work alone, as they are social workers, not police officers and do not carry weapons or handcuffs. However, Cervenka believes the approach works best when the CRU team can work without uniformed officers present.“CRU members are police department staff and have police radios on the main channel,” he explained. “If they need assistance, they call for it. They generally do not. If they are concerned, they call for an officer prior to the contact. The officer will either be immediately physically present or wait down the street, depending on the request of CRU. We understand police uniforms can be triggering for some people. CRU wears regular street clothes and nothing that would make them look ‘official.’ This, in itself, fosters trust.”
Cervenka said the CRU is having results. “We compared one month stats from September 2021 and September 2022, as it took some time for a new program to show an effect. In that comparison, we saw a 56% drop in Patrol calls involving the homeless. In 2021, arrests of homeless individuals accounted for 40% of total arrests. In September of 2022, that number plummeted to about 10% of total arrests despite total arrests increasing by 48% — meaning officers had more time to seek out other crimes. “
The original funding for the Fort Bragg CRU was a grant for $221,793 from a state program called the Behavioral Health Justice Services.
Norvell has been seeking sources for funding when this round runs out in March. “Going forward with appropriate step raises to fund long-term will be roughly between $270 and $300k/year. The chief and I will be asking the council to support it financially for the next quarter to allow us to continue to seek long-term stable financing. I have requests to both Senator Mike McGuire’s office and the county,” Norvell said.
Cervanka noted that homeless people arrested in September 2021 was 51, while in the following September, the number had dropped to 22. “While it may be said there are other factors for this decrease, the fact is CRU had 202 cases in September involving the homeless,” he said. “Additional CRU team members would mean we could put more effort into those at risk of being homeless to prevent the issue and more time into substance abuse treatment, life-skills and coaching those we are trying to pull out of homelessness to aid in their success.”
Marbut said the other thing he will be telling other cities across the country about from his Fort Bragg experience is the integration of homeless response into a single unit. He said garbled communication between planners and police and social workers often greatly reduces the effectiveness of the CRTs.
Cervanka explained how it works: “Code Enforcement is a unit within the PD, so they work together constantly. The collaboration of CRU, Code Enforcement, and Patrol offers a high level of success as they are able to tackle issues from many perspectives and have solutions at different levels. I agree with Dr. Marbut that having Patrol, CRU, and Code Enforcement in one building with one Chief is a successful model. It is much easier to make processes efficient and all parts of the system talk to each other regularly. It was carefully planned that Code Enforcement and CRU were assigned under the same supervisor in our new organizational chart.”
Something that started as a mistake at The Plateau ended up being what Marbut saw as an innovation that should be copied elsewhere. The Plateau opened with no furnishings in the units, resulting in a mad scramble by country administrators and social workers to buy stuff to put in the homes. Marbut (who didn’t realize the lack of furniture had been a mistake) said the fact that homeless people and working families saw social workers, the police chief and officers, and the mayor in their homes assembling beds and carrying in chairs and tables really bonded the people to their public servants.
“This really gave them the sense that people cared and that they really had something that they should cherish,” Marbut said.
He said he now goes with Housing Fourth over Housing First because most homeless people he meets have had “housing first” and lost it. He said efforts like The Plateau where everybody works together to get people into supportive services is the right way to go.
Cervenka said if it was truly planned the whole setting up beds and furniture scramble would be a much better idea.
“While the oversight of furnishings and the subsequent work of CRU and officers at the move-in of Plateau residents did create a bond with them and the PD staff, it was highly stressful and required a lot of staff time. With that being said, ours was an unplanned event requiring us to find resources with no notice. It would’ve been different had it been planned,” said Cervenka.
“As far as the psychological benefit of it, I will leave the opinion to the experts,” he added
We’ve heard from the expert, the mayor, and the chief. What do the homeless think about the drop in numbers, the clearing of camps, the locals only policy and the CRU?
This reporter went looking for homeless camps in the city limits but found none. Camps were found just outside the city but they were much smaller than in the past. Two people were clearly coming from a camp somewhere in the woods off A and W Logging Road near the hospital, but didn’t want to say where it was. Its former location, a horrific mess of garbage and campsites has been cleaned up.
A 51-year-old man this reporter met while he was homeless found his way into housing and has held onto it for several years. “I have to admit I did get a lot of help from individuals to make my escape,” the man said.
As to the decrease in homeless numbers, he said deaths from fentanyl, exposure and simply the horrors of living outside have killed many of Fort Bragg’s longtime homeless.
“I can’t believe how many people I knew back then are gone,” he said. “And these were not really old people. Some of them were getting arrested once a week, and now they are gone. That can change the numbers.”
He said he knew of several others who finally had found housing and kept it and some who had subsequently lost it. The Plateau? “It sounds good. But it’s too early to say how well it will go. Will they keep it up? I’ve heard that Danco [the Humboldt County-based builder] neglects places after it builds them. We will have to wait and see.”
The man, who spoke for the article on the condition we not use his name, knows many people in Fort Bragg, was involved in Black Lives Matter protests and is usually very suspicious of authority and police. He was familiar with Marbut’s work and said he didn’t like everything he had read.
“But the idea of moving people back to where they come from is really something we have to do,” he said. “With the scale of the homeless problem we have in 2023 demands we simply not put out the welcome signs anymore. We had more of a chance to screw up. Now look how you end up. Have you seen those camps in San Francisco?”
A homeless man this reporter has worked with and interviewed over the years was one of five apparently homeless people I found walking in the area of Fort Bragg Safeway in a fifteen-minute period on a Friday afternoon. Not all wanted to talk. This man was ravenously hungry and we bought him a plate of street tacos. He was also drunk but offered some thoughts.
The homeless camps are gone, isn’t that a good sign? I asked.
“People are just getting better at hiding,” he said. “They are out there, just much deeper in the forest.”
Asked about this, Marbut said that’s a good thing too. “Of course there are still camps. But making them harder to find is a good thing. Local people might know where they are, but they aren’t going to be an open beacon to people traveling to just crash here and get high and take what they can.”
The homeless man had this response: “Being out in the woods, deep in the woods especially, is very dangerous. Think about being a woman out there.”
More information will be forthcoming at city council meetings in February about the CRU team and its effects.
For now, its a reality involved with helping the homeless and keeping them move along. Norvell who has had a passion for the homeless that included working all night at times in the winter shelter when it was held in churches to spending several years helping reunite a beloved homeless man get back home to his family, thinks the current approach is helping people.
“If you’re going to be a problem on the street, to me, you’re going to have some choices. You can deal with the CRU team or you can deal with the police department. If you’re going to deal with the CRU team, they’re gonna do everything they can to get you on your feet. If you want to permanent housing, support, whether it’s drug rehab, mental health, whatever. And that’s where we really encourage people to take that route,” said Norvell.