I was walking downtown Napa the other day and the sight was seriously depressing—homeless folks begging for money on the streets, littering and housing themselves in hidden areas. Very sad, really.
The thought that I could be the one begging, openly defecating on the street side, and pushing a rickety stolen shopping cart has kept me thinking about Napa’s homeless problem and why the problem continues to escalate.
Officials estimate there are 960 homeless individuals in Napa County, with roughly 650 hard-core street people within Napa’s city limits. Reports show that numerous homeless people (and seven who were previously homeless) died in Napa, mainly from the long-term effects of drugs and alcohol. Napa may be a little off the beaten path, but the rise of homeless migration from Oakland, Vallejo and San Francisco to friendly Napa is clearly evident.
We’ve all read the horrific and tragic stories of Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara replete with dangerously aggressive beggars, open, hard-core drug use and large amounts of human waste on the streets.
Although obtaining an accurate, recent count is difficult, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates, 38% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and 26% abuse other drugs.
The problem is certainly complex, and can be segmented in several categories of the homeless, but the math is relatively simple. We have well over 2 million households in California that qualify at the poverty level with only about 664,000 low-income housing units in the state.
In Napa, exact numbers aren’t readily available, but an estimate was given between 100 and 200, according to Brandon Gardner, Napa Police Department’s homeless outreach specialist. Starting last fall, two vacant lots flanking California Drive north of downtown became home to transients for nearly six months, according to Napa Police. “It looks like our numbers are going to be higher than last year,” Gardner said.
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Many individuals on the streets are forced to become gypsies – either re-parking their cars, vans, RVs every few days or moving their campsite out of one declared off- limits area to another. Some people get resourceful, making walls around their campsite out of plants and other natural materials. Or they put their campsite underneath a canopy of trees, which also act as coat racks. “Some people have even placed booby traps around their campsites so that they’re alerted when someone is near.”
It’s clear that the homeless today do not have adequate access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and that lack of access carries health consequences.
When one looks at the root causes of homelessness with the ambition to solve them, lack of affordable housing becomes one of the primary issues. The homeless simply don’t have enough money to pay rent, even for the cheapest dives available, and housing prices in Napa continues to rise. Homelessness across Napa has steadily increased in recent years, frustrating government officials who seek solutions to reduce the number of people living on our streets.
So, Napa could go about creating more jobs, providing job/trade training programs, redistribute the wealth, improve education, socialize health care, essentially redesign its entire political and economic systems to ensure that everybody can afford housing — or, simply participate in former Gov. Jerry Brown’s No Place Like Home program. The program dedicates up to $2 billion in bond proceeds to invest in the creation of permanent supportive housing for persons with a serious mental illness or who are experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or who are at risk of chronic homelessness.
Gov. Newsom signed several new bills last month that will “give local governments even more tools to confront this crisis.” One new law that takes effect immediately lets Los Angeles by-pass parts of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to build supportive housing and shelters. Another lets projects that will turn old hotels into housing by-pass certain CEQA reviews through 2025.
Critics of CEQA argue that it is being used as a weapon to delay development of community projects by activists who find it unfavorable. Another piece of legislation signed by Newsom exempts projects built with $2 billion in voter-approved bonds from these environmental rules. The Sierra Club, an environmental group, opposed the legislation.
“I applaud state and local efforts to house our homeless,” said state Sen, Bill Dodd, D-Napa. “It’s especially important that we look out for our homeless veterans who put their lives on the line in the service of our country.”
Thank you Senator Dodd. And many thanks to Napa Supervisors for creating and prioritizing the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief and non-recurring experience in Napa.
Let us all support Napa’s End Homeless program. It’s time for common sense to prevail and for us to do the right thing for Napa’s homeless, our veterans, our tax-paying community, our economy, our businesses, our tourists and our workers.
Igor Sill is a winemaker on Atlas Peak.