It was hot Wednesday afternoon when Ray, 27, no last name given, camped in front of Bizarro World, propped up on his backpack.
He carried two cardboard signs, one asking for food and the other for marijuana. He explained that he’d been in town for a few days after backpacking around California for two years.
“It’s kind of like a spiritual journey,” he said, after explaining that he left a job as a Kirby vacuum salesman to head out on the road.
Davis, however, is just a stop on his trek. His eventual end point will be the Orcas Island in Washington, he said. It’s a horseshoe-shaped part of the San Juan Islands where the local tourism bureau advertises a relaxed casual atmosphere and equally mellow weather.
Ray didn’t actively disturb passers-by for spare change, but his appearance in town is part of what police say is a growing presence of panhandlers downtown. That growing presence, a collection of data on homelessness shows, is coinciding with a growth in homelessness across Yolo County during the past few years, according to a report drafted for the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
Police have said they don’t know for sure where they are coming from, but there have been reports from residents of buses coming from various places to drop off panhandlers in downtown Davis. Some say the buses come from Woodland, some say they’re from Sacramento.
Dorte Jensen, a local resident who said she has befriended members of the local homeless community, said she has been getting reports of a bus from Napa State Hospital, a mental institution that largely houses the criminally insane.
While it’s unlikely that mental patients held behind locked wards are roaming Davis streets, Chamber of Commerce CEO Kemble Pope has said he has seen, on numerous occasions, a group of panhandlers arrive in the same car downtown, early in the morning, to “claim” various high-traffic sidewalk corners.
Pope is also one of more than a dozen representatives of organizations who have a stake in what happens with area homeless, panhandling and camping. Other representatives, according to a list provided by Deputy City Manager Kelly Stachowicz, include for the most part workers and directors of various Davis-area nonprofits and faith groups who work with low-income residents and the homeless.
Four Davis Police Department representatives have attended a meeting of what is called the stakeholder group, as well as Stachowicz and other city representatives. Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis was part of the group in his role as a Davis Community Meals volunteer, and not at the request of the City Council to which he was recently elected.
Talking it out
Participants in the Davis homeless stakeholder group meetings:
* Carlos Matos, Davis Community Meals board member
* Kemble Pope, Davis Chamber of Commerce
* Tom Martens, STEAC
* Mary Lou Rossetto, Grace in Action
* Robb Davis, Davis Community Meals volunteer
* Joanne Haller, Davis Community Church
* David Rue, Davis Community Church
* Stewart Savage, Davis Downtown
* Bill Pride, Davis Community Meals
* Danielle Foster, city of Davis
* Kelly Stachowicz, city of Davis
* Police representatives: Darren Pytel, Paul Doroshov, Lorelee Cox and Andrew Penrose
Another member of the group is Bill Pride, executive director of Davis Community Meals. Asked what his organization has encountered in the past few years, Pride said he is seeing more people on the verge of homelessness asking for help.
“I actually think it’s a combination of things,” Pride said. “The economy hasn’t recovered greatly but there are also cutbacks in other social services and other nonprofits have cut back.”
The federal government’s sequestration has slashed government money to nonprofits, he said, adding that Davis Community Meals has been able to save its programs from the budget ax by reconfiguring paid staff and volunteers.
Pride said being in Davis, the organization is blessed with an ample supply of volunteers and general good will.
That good will also extends to downtown panhandlers, said a June 24 city staff report on the work the stakeholder group.
“In recent months, Davis has seen an increase in panhandling and visibility of individuals who are homeless or appear to be homeless,” the report said. “Staff believes that this increase is due to a combination of 1) the overall increase of individuals who are homeless due to the economy, changes in the prison system, etc., 2) the stability of services within Davis due to its supportive citizens and hard-working nonprofit and faith organizations, 3) the reduction of services and increased enforcement in neighboring cities and counties, and 4) Davis’ reputation as a generous and safe community for individuals who are homeless and/or panhandling.”
Stachowicz wrote in an email that the stakeholder group is not very formal.
“We have agreed to meet again, although to suggest that we are a formal coalition or body is stretching it,” she wrote, adding that increased homelessness and panhandling are complex issues with no single fix.
But members of the group have come to some agreement on what their goals are, the June 24 staff report said.
“The primary goal is two-fold: First, to educate the community on the importance of giving to programs rather than to individuals, as a means for ensuring efficient and optimal use of contributions and deterring individuals from coming to Davis for ‘easy money’ from generous and well-meaning citizens,” the report said.
“And, secondly,” the report said, “… to redirect donation funds to local nonprofit and faith-based organizations who can better serve the needs of homeless and extremely low-income individuals, who are hungry, need shelter, need health care and mental health services, and need detox and addiction programs.”
Among individual nonprofits some interesting trends emerge. At STEAC, the Short-Term Emergency Aid Committee, Interim Director Tom Martens provided data that shows the food closet provides help overwhelmingly to Davis residents, and there is a lack of homeless individuals taking advantage of a $400 rental assistance program, “… which means they are not moving toward long-term housing,” Martens wrote in a message accompanying STEAC statistics.
At Davis Community Meals, Pride said there’s been increased demand for its meals program and its resource program for low-income people. All the while, the shelter program’s population has been steady, suggesting that more people are almost homeless than homeless.
While anecdotal evidence of the prevalence of homelessness is common in Davis, there is only one point where there is an objective measure of that population.
According to a report generated for the Board of Supervisors, total homelessness during a count on one day in January, showed 474 homeless individuals in the county in 2013, compared to 414 in 2007. Those numbers for Davis were 114 and 86, respectively.
The count itself is not a sure measure, covering only one day each year during the dead of winter.
Several years ago, county leaders wrote a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Yolo County, according to the supervisors’ report. In the end, the plan was a failure because it hindered leadership and accountability and couldn’t identify the resources necessary to execute its goals.
According to the report: “Some of the goals in Yolo County’s plan are very vague, making it difficult to measure progress on the plan. Without a clear understanding of what progress has been made, the plan’s leadership is unable to ensure that the plan continues to move forward.”
Yet new best practices from nationwide homeless aid organizations point to a light at the end of the tunnel, and the Davis homelessness stakeholder group could be a part of that.
According to the county report, agencies and organizations are showing a renewed interest in the issue of homelessness, making a communitywide strategic plan — a nationwide best practice — possible.
Other best practices include a “housing first” approach to serving the needy, then providing other services in a “just enough” portion so that slim resources can be stretched to meet the needs of more homeless.
While those practices are meant for agencies and nonprofits, the everyday problem for many Davis residents who encounter a homeless person asking for money or food remains a deep division.
Local residents Fraser Shilling and Marintha Iverson wrote an op-ed piece published July 3 in The Davis Enterprise, denouncing the Davis stakeholder group’s goal of redirecting cash given on the street to donations given to aid organizations.
“The whole thing seems like a nefarious scheme, a cover, a facade so that the Davis community does not have to interact with homeless people,” they wrote.
They pair’s sentiments have been echoed by several other letters and a multitude of comments. Still, other anonymous residents have supported the stakeholder group.
Regardless of the controversy, what the loose coalition does next may determine the success of any new push to tackle the complex problem of homelessness in Davis, and Ray and the folks like him who are just passing through Davis on their way elsewhere.
— Reach Dave Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews