Chief Andy Mills walks through PalCo Marsh, formerly a homeless campground known as "The Devil's Playground"
by Maria Gaura
EUREKA, HUMBOLDT COUNTY - When Andy Mills first arrived in Eureka, the soon-to-be chief of police and his wife noticed a traffic disturbance on the highway ahead.
“It turned out to be a homeless woman in an electric wheelchair right in the middle of the fast lane, pushing a shopping cart with a dog in it,” Mills said. “After we passed her and drove into town, there was a person with a shopping cart, panhandling, on literally every corner. It was unbelievable.”
But Mills soon realized that street-corner panhandlers were just the most visible tip of Eureka’s homeless population.
A massive illegal campsite had sprouted in PalCo Marsh, a greenbelt area tucked behind the city’s biggest shopping mall. Bisected by rail lines, the marsh served as a hobo jungle for decades. But in recent years new arrivals transformed the shoreline into a tent city that locals called the Devil’s Playground - a garbage-strewn shantytown sheltering hundreds of people and a multitude of dogs.
The marsh-dwellers included indigent drug addicts and the mentally ill, families with children, and scores of “trimmigrants” – adventurers from around the world who increasingly flood into Humboldt County, hoping to work as trimmers for cannabis growers.
A series of drone flyovers published by the North Coast Outpost blog captures the sprawl of the Devil’s Playground, though not the scale of human misery it represented.
“I recall going out there at night for an enforcement visit - it was otherworldly,” Mills said. “There were flickering campfires scattered throughout the darkness and the trees, and voices screaming and lamenting, voices of anguish. My officer asked, “hey Chief, you scared?”. “ Mills nodded his head at the memory, “yes I was,” he said.
Success and Change
Today, four years after Mills’ introduction to Eureka, the panhandlers are gone from highway medians. The shopping carts have mostly returned to grocery store parking lots, and the Devil’s Playground has been exorcized. The annual count of unhoused homeless people in Eureka dropped from 513 in 2015 to 206 in 2017, with many of the formerly homeless moved into homes and shelters or reunited with families.
Mills is credited with crafting the community effort that slashed homelessness on Eureka’s streets. But the success that made him beloved by Eureka residents is also the reason he recently resigned – recruited away to take command of the Santa Cruz Police Department, a job that starts July 31.
The move makes sense for Mills, who takes the helm of a larger, better-funded department located much closer to San Diego, where his grandchildren are a burgeoning tribe. But Eurekans are dismayed at the loss of their approachable chief, who walked downtown daily and formed close bonds with people from every walk of life.
The path from Mills’ office at the Eureka PD to Ramone’s coffee shop, during his last week on the job, felt like the receiving line at a funeral. Every few steps were interrupted by sorrowful handshakes, accolades to the dearly departed, regrets and best wishes. There were even a few tears.
“We are all very sorry to see him go, but (Santa Cruz) got a great, great guy,” said abatement officer Debbie Brantley, shaking Mills’ hand. “His door is always open, and he always looks busy, but when you catch his eye he says “Come on in!””
A older couple approached Mills for handshakes and a plea to reconsider, “Did you get your cookies?” the woman asked.
Mills stooped to rumple the ears of a friendly mastiff, and when he rose and dusted his hands, Carolyn Monshine came in for a hug. “I was born and raised here, and I want to thank you for your service,” she said. “You changed the narrative here. We wish you the best.”
A woman in a passing car stopped to give Mills a shout-out, and a business owner warned him that moving to Santa Cruz might be a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
“You’ve got even more homeless down there, and a bunch of government officials in Santa Cruz who don’t know what the word discipline means,” he said. “But we’ll all miss you! I mean that!”
Sitting at a café table outside of Ramone’s, Mills recognized a slight young man, weather-beaten but clear-eyed, blond hair tucked under a baseball cap and hoodie.
“Yo!,” Mills said, extending a hand. “How’s it going?”
“I’m good, I’m seven people away (on a list) from housing, and I’m still sober,” said the man. “It’s been almost ten months.”
“I’m so glad you’re continuing down this path,” Mills said. “Look how much healthier you look!”
“I’ve gained four pounds, I feel like I’m through the worst of it,” the man replied. “I appreciate you looking out for my best interests.”
Mills paused thoughtfully over his coffee as the man walked on. “You’ve got to get people to a place where they’re ready to take advantage of the help that is out there. It requires a tactful approach.”
Eureka’s success story didn’t happen overnight. Before Mills could craft a homeless strategy, there were issues within the police department that needed attention. The EPD had drifted for years with temporary leadership, and several police-involved shootings left a reputation for brutality the department had not managed to shake.
“I did a ton of research before I came to Eureka (from San Diego),” Mills said. “I talked to all kinds of local people, and lots of them - even doctors, lawyers, professionals – said “we hate the EPD”, and felt the police had a reputation of being brutal and violent. I think it was by and large a misrepresentation, but it was encouraged by an attitude that we wanted people to fear us.
“The truth is that (officers) wanted respect, but fear doesn’t bring that,” Mills said. “I met with the entire force, and we worked on the idea of civility, service, communication. There are times you have to arrest people, but you make sure it’s the right people, and don’t do things that cause distress in the community.”
Despite asking for big changes, Mills said his officers willingly cooperated. "I didn’t sense resentment,” Mills said. “My way of dealing with people is to genuinely care about them, their families, their children. If people know you care, they respond. I sat down and listened, went through a long process, met with all our employees. We crafted a leadership plan together. It was critical to get everyone on the same page.”
The next priority was gathering data. Mills advocates Problem Oriented Policing, an analysis-first approach that figures out the context of problems to arrive at logical, long-term solutions.
“We surveyed the business community and the community at large,” Mills said. “About 85 percent said they altered their daily plans based on the street homeless, and about 73 percent were afraid to use the greenbelt. “Then we surveyed the homeless – where are you from, why are you here? How do you choose where to sleep? What are your fears? You have to know what people want so you know what they will respond to.”
Ultimately, the PalCo marsh had to be cleared, but Mills held off enforcement until shelter could be offered. The police teamed up with social services, businesses, non-profits and community volunteers, and went into the Devil’s Playground with a short- and a long-term plan.
“We sent the MIST (Mobile Intervention and Services Team) team to do one-on-one interviews with everybody out there, and we offered housing, medical and mental-health vans,” Mills said. “We set May 2d as the move-out date. One guy with a history of weapons threatened to “Ruby Ridge” us, but on moving day he was nowhere to be found.”
More than 100 tons of trash were hauled from the marsh, along with drug debris and dozens of machetes. Parents arrived to pick up children, and other campers dispersed to apartments, shelters, the rescue mission, transitional housing and a temporary campsite set up on private land. Over the next few weeks, dozens re-connected with family and accepted bus tickets home, but only if a “receiver” was identified at the other end of the journey. Some campers refused all assistance, and scattered to the streets.
Thirty-nine former campers and 32 dogs now live at the Blue Angel shelter, a gated, bare-bones village built from a clutch of metal shipping containers. The shelter is a collaboration between local businesses, which donated the containers, local government, which owns the land, and homeless advocate Betty Kwan Chinn, who runs a tight ship.
For thirty years, Chinn has fearlessly entered remote encampments and hostile city council meetings, offering help to the desperate and demanding action from the powerful. But when asked about the departure of Chief Mills, Chinn loses her fierceness.
“You’re going to make me cry,” Chinn said, with a teary tremor in her voice. “Andy, he’s one of the best. He reaches out to anybody, to the whole community. For a long time, nobody trusted the cops here. One previous chief sent me to jail, but now everything is 200 percent different.”
Chinn and Mills have formed a fast friendship, and worked closely on plans to move people out of homelessness. “He told me, Betty, we will find a place for these people to go,” Chinn said. “We moved 26 families with 54 kids out of there. There were criminals in the marsh, not just homeless, people would tell me about the guns and drugs. Let me show you something.”
Chinn stepped into her office and emerged with a two-foot machete in hand. “We found 42 of these down there, this is how people there survived the night.”
Blue Angel village is comprised of five shipping containers divided into 20 cubicles with just enough room for two twin beds and a nightstand. An average person might balk at the tight quarters, but Chinn’s guests need to work up to sleeping inside.
“Put these people in a house, they are going to fail,” Chinn said. “A guy sleeps on the ground for 17 years, he has to learn how to sleep inside, on a bed. That’s why we need this place. We don’t start from a big place, we start from small.”
Many campers refuse shelter rather than abandon their loyal dogs, and say that fear prevents restful sleep, leading to chronic exhaustion. To move this group off the street, dogs are welcome at Blue Angel, and newcomers are expected to catch up on their sleep. “I’ve been bitten four times,” Chinn said, showing marks on her arm. “I don’t like dogs. But people don’t want to be separated from their dogs. When people get here, they sleep for a week. And after that week we kick their butt. This is transitional, they’ve got 90 days to work on jobs and mental health, they’ve got to have a goal.”
Chinn has been fielding calls from Santa Cruz, with questions about the Chief and his bona fides. She gestures to the container village, “In four weeks and two days, we go from empty parking lot to this,” Chinn said. “This was the chief’s project. You guys are really, really, really lucky to get him.”
San Diego, Eureka, Santa Cruz
Mills built a career at the San Diego Police Department, climbing to the rank of Captain and responsible for a district with 150,000 residents – five times the population of Eureka. But Eureka’s small-town setting offered the opportunity for full command, and freedom to innovate.
Mills will miss the friendships built in Eureka, and the gorgeous natural beauty. He digs out his phone and pulls up a photo of a huge black bear strolling through his back yard.
“I felt this was a good place to push the envelope of solutions, and lessen the impact of homelessness, which is not going away,” Mills said. “Here in Eureka, things are definitely better. But Santa Cruz is a good opportunity, the timing and fit just seem right.”
Santa Cruz and Eureka share some issues, including troubling levels of homelessness and street drugs, and the sense of being a regional dumping ground for other communities’ social problems. Both cities have trouble with officer retention, though officer pay in Eureka tops out at $61,000 per year, compared to more than $100,000 in Santa Cruz. The biggest differences are economic, with home prices in Santa Cruz triple those in Eureka, and rents soaring out of reach of average earners.
“The more I looked into Santa Cruz and the issues there, it felt like my wheelhouse, my swim lane,” Mills said. “It seems well-run from the standpoint of policies and management techniques. They talk about engaging the public, community policing, and solving homeless problems. Then they sell you on the beach community, which is very similar to Del Mar, where we raised our kids.”
Mills and his wife have relocated to Santa Cruz, where he is already showing up at community meetings and getting acquainted. There is no fixed template for action, he said – any plan for Santa Cruz will have to be thoroughly researched and acceptable to the community.
“We need to do honest analysis on specific problems, and redirection where it is needed, to make incremental change,” Mills said. “If we can improve a situation by 10 percent a year over the next five years, is that acceptable? To me, hell yes. So the question is, how do we move this needle?”
Maria Gaura writes about research, gardening, and Santa Cruz