A countywide issue

Rock ‘n Roll Jimmy, who has been homeless for years, plays his guitar on Rodriguez Street in Watsonville. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

As Santa Cruz cleans up Gateway, Watsonville’s homeless increasing

WATSONVILLE — It has been one week since the City of Santa Cruz closed the Gateway encampment in Santa Cruz, forcing as many as 200 people to seek shelter elsewhere in the county.

It is not yet clear how the move will affect the population of homeless people in South County, and such numbers are typically difficult to track. During the biennial homeless count in 2017, there were 340 people who were considered “unsheltered” in the Watsonville area.

Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker said that the city has seen an increase in homeless people over the past few months, and an uptick in complaints from residents and businesses.

“The increase has been especially visible in the downtown area and in the sloughs and wetland areas,” he said.

While the numbers in Watsonville are smaller than those in North County, the City of Watsonville is far from immune to many of the same problems.

Less than a day after firefighters quelled a blaze that gutted an abandoned Main Street taqueria on May 3, several people could be seen going in and out of the building, while others were tending a small campfire in the wooded space behind it.

Numerous campsites were also visible, partially hidden in the thick brush along Watsonville Slough. Piles and piles of garbage and heaps of seemingly discarded clothing were everywhere.

POLICE RESPONSE

The cause of the blaze is under investigation. But the fact that transient people were apparently taking shelter in the former Taqueria Mundial at 1075 Main St.  – already slated for demolition to make way for new construction –  came as no surprise to Watsonville Police, who were monitoring the site in the aftermath of the fire.

Nearby, a man with a shopping cart full of recyclable bottles and cans was going through an adjacent business, which was also abandoned.

Watsonville Police Capt. Jorge Zamora said that police can do little in those cases unless the property owner wants the people removed.

According to Zamora, dealing with the city’s homeless population takes a compassionate approach, coupled with “constant maintenance.”

More importantly, it requires input and work from several sectors of the city to tackle the myriad problems that beset that population. This includes the drug use and crime that also frequently go hand-in-hand with homeless encampments.

“People are homeless for a number of reasons, and it’s not something that can be easily handled by just the police,” Zamora said.

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Flames tore through the former Taqueria Mundial on Main Street at Auto Center Drive on May 3. The interior and exterior of the building, long abandoned, sustained major damage. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

To help with people experiencing mental health issues, for example, WPD utilizes a mental health liaison team, which includes a trained police officer and a mental health specialist.

Police team up with public works employees three days per week to clean up unsanctioned campsites, which are largely found in the wooded areas along South County’s levee system.

“It’s not an easy task to deal with, especially when you’re trying to be compassionate,” he said.

Even when business owners ask that homeless campers be moved along, or when they are blocking sidewalks and entryways, criminal citation is the last resort, Zamora said.

“We don’t cite people for camping,” he said.   

Instead, police try to steer the people in the direction of social services, which itself can be a difficult task.

“Its not always easy, because often the people don’t want the services,” he said.

Huffaker said the city focuses on connecting the homeless with services, while considering the safety and health of the community.

“We have been particularly concerned with impacts to downtown businesses, as well as environmentally sensitive areas throughout town,” he said.

The city’s efforts for the homeless include a Day Services Center at 104 Grant St., in partnership with the Salvation Army.

There, visitors have access to showers, meals, the internet and storage facilities. Dental and medical services are also available, as are haircut services once a week.

There are also hot meals at night and a continental breakfast in the morning.

In addition, Watsonville is working with the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County to implement the “Watsonville Works!” program, through which the city will employ homeless people to clean the downtown area and slough system, as well as connect them with services.

HOMELESS SERVICES

The Salvation Army operates four shelters throughout Santa Cruz County, one of which is located at 1220 River St., created to handle the people displaced from the Gateway camp.

The organization also runs the shelters at 721 Laurel Street and 2259 7th Avenue in Santa Cruz.

All told, the Salvation Army shelters had about 15 available beds on Thursday afternoon, said Capt. Harold Laubach, Jr.

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An excavator operator rakes up heaps of debris in Camp Ross along Highway 1 at River Street in Santa Cruz Thursday morning during a massive clean up of the site. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

In Watsonville, the shelter at 104 Grant Street is regularly at its capacity of 32, he said.

Laubach said the Salvation Army has seen a slight increase in the numbers of people seeking homeless services since the camp closed, and that the organization was prepared when Santa Cruz closed Gateway.

“We made sure we had at least 110 openings on the day the city closed the camp,” he said.

The Salvation Army’s strict policies about residency in the 1220 River St. camp has raised some eyebrows among the homeless community, some of whom were planning to protest at the site.

This includes requirements that people going in are scanned, and their bags are searched. The area is surrounded by a chain-link fence, which is strung with red privacy tape.

This is a way to stop weapons from coming in, and quell open visitation, Laubach said.

Illegal drugs are forbidden, and residents can have no more than one bicycle. That is likely a response to the gargantuan piles of bikes that were strewn throughout the Gateway camp.

Van transportation services are available from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. daily, and because there are no sidewalks clients cannot walk in or out of the camp.

“My staff needs to make sure clients are safe and that they have privacy,” Laubach said. “The overwhelming majority say they appreciate the cleanliness, the safety and the privacy.”

“It’s a gorgeous site,” he added. “There is not a piece of garbage anywhere.”

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