VALLEJO – A controversial tent city proposed for a church parking lot was rejected 2-4 by the Vallejo City Council during a lengthy special meeting Monday night.
Councilmembers Katy Miessner, Pippin Dew, Mina Loera-Diaz, and Cristina Arriola voted against a plan to build a temporary living facility that would include 40 7.5-feet by 7.5-feet tents, and four Porta-Potties at 921 Amador St.
Mayor Robert McConnell recused himself before the council discussed the issue, citing a conflict of interest.
City staff said that about 60 people will lose their temporary shelter as Jan. 5 marks the end of Project RoomKey, a program launched in the first month of the pandemic as state leaders attempted to stop the spread of COVID-19 by offering shelter options for people experiencing homelessness.
The tent city plan was backed by several nonprofit groups, including Vallejo Together, Fighting Back Partnership, and One Love Center for Health.
Prior to the deciding vote, the Vallejo council deadlocked on a substitute motion from Miessner, who proposed that the council hold a special meeting before Jan. 5 about using some of the nearly $26 million in American Rescue Plan monies the city received to continue funding Project RoomKey for the coming winter months.
Dew — along with Vice Mayor Rozzana Verder-Aliga and Councilmember Hakeem Brown — voted against holding a meeting to discuss extending Project RoomKey. The motion died because it failed to garner four council votes.
No plan for end of Project RoomKey
Both councilmembers Arriola and Loera-Diaz criticized the city for not having a solid plan for when Project RoomKey ends.
“This is Christmas week and I feel manipulated that I’m being forced to make a decision and decide the fate of these folks, these 65 people, that’s a heavy burden on my shoulders,” Arriola said.
Loera-Diaz said she grappled with the decision before Monday’s vote. She said that had the nonprofits not approached the city, the 60-plus Project RoomKey participants would have gone back on the streets with no plan.
“I firmly believe that poor planning on the city’s part has led to this and we need to own it and we need to take the responsibility that we are in this mess because of this,” Loera-Diaz said. “We have failed not only the residents, who are dealing with this now, who are spending hours here trying to fight for a community that they’ve kept united, but we have also failed the participants by not having a back-up plan for them.”
Loera-Diaz said she took it upon herself to contact the Greater Vallejo Recreation District and ask its general manager about using community center space or park space for a possible tent facility. Loera-Diaz said the general manager had no knowledge that the city was working on getting the tent city established.
Housing department at 30% staffing level
Interim Assistant City Manager Gillian Hayes, who took over control of the housing division earlier this year, said the city is working with federal, state, regional and community partners to address the lack of housing for the unsheltered. She said the city is looking into tiny homes, adding more transitional housing projects like the one being built on Sacramento Street, and finding safe overnight parking spaces.
“Unfortunately, there is no one solution to the problem, either, because if there was, believe me, I’d be behind it and we would all be implementing it right now,” Hayes said.
Hayes responded to questions on why Vallejo couldn’t open a tent facility on city-owned property, saying staffing is an issue.
“I’ve got (a) 30 percent staffing level in my housing division right now,” Hayes said. “I cannot even implement our Section 8 voucher program fully to the extent that it should be implemented because I don’t have the warm bodies to do so.”
She also said that city staff supported the tent city project to see if it could be replicated elsewhere.
“Staff is recommending approval because we want to test, we want to see if this will be successful. If this is successful, we can replicate it elsewhere,” Hayes said. “There are other faith-based organizations watching and waiting to see how the process goes.”
Hayes also said that the council and public will get an update on the status of the city’s proposed navigation center next month.
“We are getting close, we have made some great progress on funding and moving things ahead on that navigation center,” Hayes said.
City officials said an environmental report done on the site at 5 Midway St. discovered a restriction on the property due to ground contamination from prior industrial uses.
Most public speakers were opposed to the tent city
Most of the six hour meeting was reserved for public comment as more than 50 persons – in the chambers and online – addressed the council.
Most of the comments expressed opposition to the project with many of the comments coming from neighbors of the proposed site who voiced strong opposition to the tent city, claiming it would attract blight and destabilize the middle-class neighborhood.
“This is a classic case of ‘ready, fire aim’ – you got the cart before the horse,” said Dennis Albright. “It’s inadequately planned, you all know that. What little notification that went out was totally inadequate and late.”
Albright, like many others, chastised the city for not planning for the winddown of Project RoomKey.
“Now suddenly the city is faced with an immediate crisis of finding a new location for the displaced. Instead of taking responsibility for this initiative, the city has decided to approve a plan initiated by a group of nonprofits with no known experience or funding other than some meager GoFundMe donations that appear to fall far short of financial operating requirements,” Albright added. “Where are the assets of the lead organization, 4th Second? Where is the budget to support this proposal? You don't have a credible plan without a budget.”
There were a handful of supporters of the project, like Francie McInerney MacMillan of Vallejo Together, another partner organization.
MacMillan said in October there was a memorial service for 40 unsheltered Vallejo residents who died from COVID-19.
She also responded to a speaker opposed to the project that claimed the neighborhood was being treated like “guinea pigs”
“Yeah, you are the guinea pigs for 30 days and if it’s the pits then it's the pits and we have to be gone,” she added.
Longtime advocate for the homeless Doug Darling said he supported the proposed project but asked the city to step up.
“If you do go forward with this, you, the city, need to take a level of accountability. You can’t just do like we always do in the historic past and say ‘it’s not our problem,” Darling told the council.
Darling said that the city should declare a state of emergency and have the Red Cross open a shelter in one of the city’s community centers.
Councilmember Hakeem Brown was combative with public
Brown, who expressed support for the project, rejected public calls that he recuse himself for sharing a 4th Second GoFundMe link seeking funding for the tent city project.
Brown also took aim at some of Loera-Diaz’s comments that people can get from A to B with the proper tools, suggesting people experiencing homelessness could improve their situation themselves with some assistance from the city.
“I would totally disagree with that statement. You have no clue what it's like to grow up Black in America,” Brown said. “All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk as we say out here and just because we all may have color doesn’t mean that you understand what it’s like to be African American in this community or someone who is unhoused in this community.”
Tempers flared throughout the night as Brown told at least one person in the chambers to “shut up” after they started shouting out at him. The incident began when one of the first public speakers continued to speak after their allotted three minutes to address the council. The speaker ignored calls from Verder-Aliga to conclude their remarks. Brown stepped in and shouted, “Point of order, please stop her from talking. Her time is up.”
“Your time is up too, sir. Let the next speaker talk,” Brown said as the two exchanged words. “You’re not going to take over this meeting. Okay, then, shut up.”
Following the vote, city staff met to discuss when the council could meet before Jan. 5 about a proposed alternate site for the tent facility. The applicants have suggested an empty lot at 1140 Fifth St. in south Vallejo. Councilmembers voted 5-0 to continue the item to a special meeting on Dec. 28.
Brown didn’t participate in the final vote as he had already left the council chambers for the night.
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