Homelessness presents a complex set of issues for any community, and Pleasant Hill officials say they are relatively well positioned both to help them and to provide as much affordable housing as possible.

But recently during the first of three Pleasant Hill “Community Conversations on Social Justice,” a panel of public officials and social services experts said getting a grasp on how to best help the homeless is an ongoing, sometimes difficult process.

Pleasant Hill Police Chief Bryan Hill said officer response to calls involving the homeless — despite wide-ranging officer training that covers crisis intervention and de-escalation training — can present considerable challenges.

“We’ve had more and more thrown at us, and that’s because we’re here 24/7,” said Hill, who acknowledged police could use help on some kinds of calls. “We’re recognizing there are other partners who can help us get to where we want to go.”

Hill was part of a July 22 panel that brought together, via Zoom, Pleasant Hill officials and people with mental health, homeless services and other expertise as related to social justice. Approximately 85 viewers took part, some submitting questions posed by moderator Lloyd Schine, diversity chair of the Pleasant Hill Civic Action Commission.

Jaime Jenett said that as of the most recent “point in time” Contra Costa County homeless count, done in January, there are approximately 270 people served in Pleasant Hill by a Coordinated Outreach, Referral and Engagement (CORE) homeless services team.

“All the law enforcement in the world isn’t going to make homelessness go away.”

Pleasant Hill Police Chief Bryan Hill

Jenett, with Contra Costa Health Services, said more than half of them have substantial Pleasant Hill family and/or community connections.

And though Caucasians make up the majority of Contra Costa’s homeless, Jenett said African Americans are overrepresented in that count, at a rate four times higher than whites based on the size of the overall Black population in the county.

Gigi Crowder, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness Contra Costa Chapter, said mental health issues play a role in many people’s homelessness, especially the chronically homeless. She also said that Blacks, generally speaking, often receive services in the most “restrictive” environments, making implicit-bias training for police that much more important.

Crowder and others praised regional efforts to create alternative or supplemental responses to mental health-related calls police now respond to by themselves. Crowder has been outspoken in calls for reform after the shooting death of 23-year-old Miles Hall in June 2019 by Walnut Creek police officers. Hall was having a mental health episode when police were called.

Participants in the July 22 Pleasant Hill town hall forum on social justice discuss issues related to homelessness. A recording of the meeting can be viewed on YouTube. (Image courtesy of city of Pleasant Hill/YouTube)

“I’m just trying to avoid what happened to Miles ever happening again,” said Crowder, who praised ongoing discussions about a possible regional approach to augmenting police response to homelessness issues with social service experts.

She said some cities would probably benefit from “defunding” their police departments and reallocating some of that money to other social services, but couldn’t say whether Pleasant Hill is one. Mayor Matthew Rinn said that conversation is almost certainly coming.

“We’re listening, and we want to see what community priorities are,” said Rinn, who agreed that a social worker may provide a more effective response in some instances than would a police officer.

Hill added, “All the law enforcement in the world isn’t going to make homelessness go away.”

The panel also discussed ways to prevent homelessness in the first place. Pleasant Hill City Manager June Catalano said they include the city mandating all new “accessory dwelling units” (also called “granny” or “in-law” units) be classified as affordable or low-income housing.

Also, Mayor Rinn said the city will soon host a Habitat for Humanity housing project, a seven-unit townhouse development on Cleaveland Road south of downtown.

Jenett said the efforts to reduce homelesness in Contra Costa County, and to treat the homeless equitably, by necessity, must come from many angles.

“Homelessness is the most complicated issue I’ve ever worked on, because there are so many things that contribute to it,” she said.

The second of three planned Pleasant Hill Community Conversations, “Social Justice and the Role of the Faith Community,” is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 12. More information is available on the city’s website.