Conflict in Chinatown
On Soledad Street, where junkies and angels reside, a clash is coming.
Thursday, November 9, 2006
Salinas’ Soledad Street has been a refuge for the hungry and homeless for more than two decades. The area across the railroad tracks from downtown is still called Chinatown because of its roots as a neighborhood of Asian immigrants. But now Chinatown is better known as the city’s hub for street-level drug dealing. It is also the home of a charitable institution that serves the city’s neediest residents.
As the area slowly tries to reinvent itself, the question is clear: Where do we draw the line between the hungry and the drug thugs?
Anyone can walk into the day room of Dorothy’s Place and—so long as they follow a few posted rules—be served a hot meal, take a shower and do their laundry. The brightly painted soup kitchen, which doubles as an overnight shelter for women, serves more than 200 meals a day, breakfast and lunch.
The refuge’s use permit is up for renewal next month. Overcoming this hurdle would allow the Franciscan Workers to continue providing services under the roof of the city-owned building. But the area’s stakeholders are challenging the way the Salinas-based community group does business.
The Oldtown Salinas Association, an influential business group working to redevelop the downtown area, has requested that guests at Dorothy’s be required to show an ID before getting food. The association wants Dorothy’s staff to strictly enforce codes of conduct, report all criminal activity to the police and use restraining orders against violent or threatening people.
Frank Saunders, a downtown property owner representing the Oldtown Association, says these measures are necessary because Dorothy’s Place has become a haven for drug dealers.
“If they can get free food and buy drugs in the same place, to me this is an enabling atmosphere,” Saunders says.
The conditions recommended by the association contradict the open-door (and open-heart) policy of Robert Smith, director of Dorothy’s Place. The gray-bearded, soft-eyed man has been doing this work since he began handing out egg salad sandwiches to homeless people on Soledad Street in 1982. Since that time, he and the rest of the Franciscan Workers have run Dorothy’s Place less like a shelter and more like a hotel, offering hospitality and dignity to all who check in.
“We’ve always believed essentially that love and community is the first step in recovery,” Smith says. “We’ve wanted everyone to come in so we can engage them in positive, creative ways to try to change their life.”
He fears that changing the rules at Dorothy’s to discriminate between troublemakers and the harmless needy could unravel the trust that the Franciscan Workers have built in Chinatown over the last 24 years.
The expiration of Dorothy’s use permit has resurfaced a fight over how and where to serve Salinas’ marginalized individuals.
The conflict follows a year of progress in the neighborhood, a year that saw the planting of a garden and the opening of a community center.
And just this week, the Redevelopment Agency is expected to move forward on the purchase of four parcels on Soledad Street, land that will be set aside for the construction of affordable housing.
Although there is little risk of Dorothy’s Place being shut down, the question of the permit has divided some of the area’s key stakeholders.
The soup kitchen is getting resistance from the Confucius Church, a Chinese congregation on neighboring California Street. Sun Street Center, a drug and alcohol recovery program for men, wants new plans to curtail the area’s narcotics trade. There is free food on Soledad Street, yet crack is for sale on the corner. These conflicting worlds cannot continue to coexist
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We approach Chinatown carrying bags of clean needles, pouches of Capri Sun fruit drink and condoms. I am walking with two CSUMB students and Dennis Beasley, a former drug addict who is now an outreach counselor for John XXIII AIDS Ministry. We cross two lines of Union Pacific Railroad tracks, stepping on salt-and-pepper-colored rocks.
Catching sight of us, a dirty-clothed man with wild, dark hair stops rummaging through a shopping cart filled with scrap metal. He hands Beasley a handful of dirty needles. In return, the man receives clean syringes and a few small metal caps that he will use for cooking heroin.
Unlike several other drug addicts wandering along the railroad tracks, the 53-year-old man is sleeveless. His dark-skinned arms bubble with abscesses. The clean paraphernalia is meant to keep him from contracting HIV and other diseases that spread from sharing needles. The man is grateful. When he starts mumbling about a vampire doll in his shopping cart being his grandfather, we move on.
John XXIII staffers and volunteers walk the tracks about twice a week. They hand out alcohol swabs and crack pipe extensions to people who are too sick to walk two blocks to the drop-in center at the corner of Market and North Main Streets. An average of 2,000 needles a month are exchanged in Chinatown.
Walking southeast just above the Market Street underpass, we greet a short-haired woman who could be in her 50s—my mom’s age, I realize. Her skinny frame makes her jean jacket look extra baggy. She pulls out a black pouch and counts out 15 used needles. She also has a few syringe caps, and tries to barter a needle for each cap. Beasley agrees to give her one extra needle for the caps.
A Latino man with a white shirt tucked into his gray Dickies pants waits patiently. He looks like he probably has a job, maybe a family. He hands Beasley a dirty needle and accepts some graham crackers and juice.
We walk to the railroad bridge above East Alisal Street. A woman with a black Raiders stocking hat pulled just above here eyes grabs an armful of juice and munchies. She digs out her dirty needles with her other hand.
Both hands are dirty and oversized for her bony face. She points to the other side of the bridge where she says cops tore up her camp. Nobody else is around further down the tracks so we head back to Chinatown.
Beasley, who is African-American, says the demographics vary in the neighborhood, from Latinos and Whites along the tracks to a mix of Blacks and Latinos on Soledad Street. Dealers from Black and Latino gangs are known to shell out heroin, crack and meth in the general area. Beasley warns us not to stare, recalling a comical instance when he had to tell a Black guy that a White volunteer was with him in order to avoid a confrontation.
At the top of Soledad Street, the same guy with the wild hair we saw earlier is cradled in a doorway behind a yellow shopping cart. When I see he is cooking up some heroin, I walk away. He calls me back and cordially asks me my name. I tell him I am a reporter and he just says, “OK.” He seems to be too high to register that he is shooting up in front of me.
Our last stop is behind the Salinas Train Station. Piles of feces and toilet paper are scattered along the rusted walls of the bridge over North Main Street. Thousands of cars pass under the bridge everyday. Behind these walls, just out of sight from traffic, people are shooting up and shitting.
While some people are trapped by poverty, addiction or mental illness, many others have found a path out. Joshua Bingham has endured the ugly side of Soledad Street and is now enrolled in a recovery program at Sun Street Center. The 23-year-old takes a break from painting a mural on the cement wall of Iglesia De Dios, a church across from the community garden, and rolls a cigarette.
Bingham looks at two painted words, “sobriety” and “music,” elements that he is trying to focus his life on following a spate of addiction. He tells me that after his mother and brother died in a car accident about two years ago, he hit bottom. He ended up living out of his truck and panhandling for money to buy drugs. Bingham says he would often come down to Chinatown to score crack or meth.
“I ditched all my friends and my family for this,” he says. “I was homeless by choice. You don’t know what the hell you are doing when you’re high. You don’t know the difference between right and wrong.”
Pausing to take a drag from his cigarette, Bingham says, “I’m doing the right thing now for sure.” Late last month Bingham celebrated his 43rd day sober.
He says Soledad Street is gradually getting cleaned up, and he has noticed more police presence and less filth. “Just within a couple years or so I’ve seen it go from real bad. Hope definitely exists.”
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It’s Saturday morning and a group of university students show up on Soledad Street in jeans and college sweaters. They feel lucky that they were able to find the one-block strip in the center of Salinas—streets are all one way. The area is cut off from downtown by the railroad tracks and sandwiched in by North Main Street and Sherwood Drive. About 130 volunteers, many from CSU Monterey Bay, spent Saturday of last week sprucing up this derelict stretch.
The south end of Soledad Street is dominated by a strip of deteriorated buildings with shattered windows and pigeons as their only occupants. They are rotting shells of old restaurants, markets, and hotels, closed down since at least the 1980s. There are only two exceptions: Dorothy’s Place and Victory Mission, a night-time Christian shelter for men.
Most volunteers were corralled within the black, wrought-iron fence of a sprouting community garden at the north end of the block. The patch of dirt, which was once a place for people to park (and sometimes sleep in) their vehicles, has been transformed into a budding garden of native plants, herbs and opportunity.
Tino Soper, a crew leader in an orange vest and shorts, shows volunteers how to make walls for the garden’s tool shed of out straw, sand and clay.
Later in the day the garden crew leaders received a certificate for graduating from a six-week job-training program that covered everything from plant irrigation to résumé writing. The nine graduates are all either homeless or in transition from homelessness.
Sara de Campos, one of the graduates, shows me how to sow seeds for raised beds near the garden’s entrance. She puts some soil in a black plastic tray, makes a hole with a spoon, drops a seed in, and repeats the process. The work is tedious. I quickly get bored with inserting sweet-pea seeds in the tiny squares of soil. So I switch to sticky-monkey seeds. The plants will eventually be transferred to raised beds in the garden. This sowing of seeds seems symbolic of the uncertain efforts to make change on Soledad Street.
The big volunteer effort comes down to Chinatown once or twice a year. Progress has been made since the last “Beautification Day,” organized by CSUMB in April.
Stepping outside the glass doors of a Chinese social club called the Bing Gong Tong, Frank Tang is smiling and excited to see activity on the street. Tang is the caretaker for the tong, one of two clubs that once operated gambling halls on Soledad Street.
He says he hasn’t seen Chinatown this clean in about 20 years, when a homeless day shelter called the Swinging Door was moved here from Market Street. Before that, he says, the area was littered with food containers; now Dorothy’s Place volunteers regularly pick up trash.
Just a door down from the tong is a community center run by CSUMB. The white building houses offices for Steven Levinson, interim Soledad Street revitalization manager, and Iris Peppard, the garden’s coordinator. The center at 22 Soledad St. is also where the Downtown Community Board meets monthly to hash out the neighborhood’s perplexing issues of poverty and drug addiction.
Until recently, the area’s drug dealers and squatters were tolerated, but now community leaders are plotting ways to make the area safer, cleaner and prepped for redevelopment.
“What has changed is there is now an active dialogue about what the future of the neighborhood will be like,” says Seth Pollack, director of CSUMB’s Service Learning Institute.
For the past decade, the university has been sending students to Dorothy’s Place to do the “service learning” work that every CSUMB student is required to do. Over the past five years, students have been putting in a combined 3,000 volunteer hours a year on Soledad Street, Pollack says.
About a year ago, the university started spending a three-year, $600,000 grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant is designed to facilitate a community planning process for the neighborhood and provide jobs and training for the disenfranchised. The money has enabled the creation of the garden, the lease of the community center and the hiring of staff to manage the neighborhood’s progress.
“If it wasn’t for CSUMB, [Soledad Street] would have been the same as it was,” says business major Daniel Jimenez.
Jimenez shovels topsoil into a barrel planter while two women volunteers, who look more than twice his age, set bulbs in place. Jimenez is a CSUMB student from the South County city of Soledad. It is his first visit to the street, and like dozens of other undergraduates he is going to do his service learning here this semester.
“I never knew how bad Soledad Street was before,” Jimenez says. “When you pass down the street you don’t see how bad it is.”
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On Sept. 20, CSUMB students walked out of an evening class on Soledad Street to find the windows of two cars bashed in and planters tipped over. The next day the tires of the Franciscan Workers’ van were slashed. Students will not be allowed on Soledad Street after dark for the rest of the semester.
Robert Smith of Dorothy’s Place says he has never seen anything like this since he started handing out sandwiches in 1982. He is still shaken from the incident.
Stepped-up police enforcement has temporarily unsettled the drug trade in Chinatown.
Salinas Police Cmdr. Kelly McMillin explains that he can only tackle crime in the area by sending out his entire graveyard shift of officers. There is only one beat cop for a large section of Salinas that includes Chinatown.
“The problem is solvable,” McMillin says. “It just takes resources that we don’t have.”
Without officers dedicated to patrolling Chinatown, Saunders, of the Oldtown Association, says it’s up to the social service providers to better monitor the area. Homeless people are now sleeping in doorways on Main Street, possibly because they are afraid of the drug dealers.
The Oldtown Association wants to curtail the drug trafficking before the long-awaited hotel-and-condominium complex is built a block away from Soledad Street. A view of Chinatown would not be a good selling point for potential condo buyers.
Wally Ahtye, a Soledad Street property owner and Confucius Church member, laments the fact that his childhood neighborhood is now overrun by homeless people and drug addicts. Ahtye grew up here in the 1930s, when about a dozen Chinese families lived in rickety houses or in the back of storefronts on Soledad Street.
The 77-year-old remembers when the Wheel of Hope was founded in 1994 by the Franciscan Workers and the Buddhist Temple. An effort to resolve a conflict between temple members, who wanted the homeless out of Chinatown, and volunteers who wanted to stay and serve the needy, it was given a 10-year lease, and then given the option of a two-year extension.
The placement of Dorothy’s at the Green Gold Inn, a former crack house, was supposed to be temporary.
Those 12 years have run their course, and the fundamental conditions of poverty, addiction, and mental illness remain.
“The way it’s going now [the Franciscan Workers] just go about their business,” Ahtye says. “It doesn’t seem they have tried something new to keep the elements out of there.”
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Dorothy’s Place is unduly shouldering the blame for the area’s drug problem, says Mia Ferreira, shelter coordinator for Women Alive! The nonprofit group opened a overnight shelter in December 2005 and has provided a warm cot and dinner to more than 80 women. Some of the women from the shelter meet on Saturdays to silkscreen shirts and make other crafts as part of a work coop. The shirts are emblazoned with slogans such as “Love Loudly” and “Food for All.”
“What we do here is the opposite of what happens on the street,” Ferreira says. “I feel we need to get more involvement from the property owners. Because there is no traffic in the area, that allows drug dealers to come through here.”
Not ready to wait for the city to declare the area a “drug-free zone,” Sun Street Center and the Franciscan Workers plan to post signs proclaiming that designation themselves.
The center’s residency program is located two blocks away from Chinatown. Marie Kassing, deputy director of programs, says three men in the program have died after relapsing and overdosing on drugs they got on Soledad Street.
Sun Street is not opposing the conditional use permit renewal for Dorothy’s. “What we have a concern about is business as usual for the entire area,” Kassing says.
In early December, the Salinas Planning Commission will likely extend the Franciscan Worker’s lease for another two years. There will be some minor adjustments to the permit, but they won’t be evicted. The city of Salinas redevelopment agency, which owns the Green Gold Inn, has yet to decide on a permanent place for homeless services. But it isn’t likely to change course now.
The blighted neighborhood is inching toward redevelopment. The downtown community board is gearing up for a five-day “neighborhood envisioning” session in March. That process, which will include focus groups and a neighborhood needs assessment, will be facilitated by the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that helps municipalities create healthy communities.
This meeting, known as a “charette,” will then lead to a market study for the area, followed by a request for proposals for developers, says Don Reynolds, project manager for the Salinas Redevelopment Agency.
Meanwhile, this week’s announcement of the purchase of property by the city could mean that an acre of blighted land will be turned into an affordable housing/mixed-use development.
Redevelopment will not cure the unsolvable problems of poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness. More beds for homeless people, mental health services, and jobs would be a big help, but that takes money. The city is not in the business of providing social services. The redevelopment agency is focused on downtown, and developers aren’t going to want poor people loitering in their project area.
It remains to be seen whether concerned organizations in Salinas will stop reproaching Dorothy’s Place and instead start collaborating to help the area, or whether the Oldtown Association’s “tough love” can fit in with Dorothy’s “unconditional love” approach.
Drug dealers have been in Chinatown since before Dorothy’s Place opened. It is not just the responsibility of the social service providers to monitor it, but also the businesses, residents and property owners in the area. Perhaps the neighborhood will band together and push out the dealers.
All stakeholders want the same thing: a safe, clean, and viable neighborhood. There will continue to be finger-pointing, but solutions are bound to surface—eventually.