Salinas homeless build a rules-driven tent community on Soledad Street.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
It’s Christmas on Soledad Street. “Festive” isn’t a word normally associated with this part of Salinas, where crates and tarps substitute for homes, and worn buildings hover stonily over drug deals and fights. And yet, even in this refuge of the desperate or addicted, there is evidence of holiday cheer.
Marking the entrance of Tent City is a Christmas tree, adorned with red and gold ornaments and battery-operated lights. Barely taller than the tents themselves, the tree is a point of pride for the residents who live here.
Tent City, also known as Tents by the Gardens, is a collection of about 20 tents and 30 or so people occupying a corner of an otherwise empty lot. Next to the lot is a garden, maintained by CSU Monterey Bay students involved in the university’s service learning program.
Residents are careful to distinguish their living area from the other illicit encampments that have mushroomed around Soledad Street’s Dorothy’s Kitchen, a gathering point for the city’s homeless. Tent City is a community.
Further into the encampment, more signs of Christmas. A few bright stockings hang above the doorway of a spacious gray tent, and inside, over a cabinet, there’s a wall clock with a drawing of Santa and his sleigh. A pillowcase on the mattress that was found in a nearby dumpster says, “Merry Christmas.”
“Christmas is my favorite holiday,” says Rita Acosta, who lives in the tent with her boyfriend and two dogs, Princess and Prince Charming. “Just because I’m here doesn’t mean I’m not going to celebrate.”
Acosta, 45, and her boyfriend, Cory Meek, are leaders in a movement to organize some of the homeless on this street. Their mission: To create a safe environment in which they won’t be bothered by the police or neighboring derelicts.
Tent City is about two months old. It was started after the last “sweep,” when police forcibly uprooted the clusters of tents that had sprung up on the street and its alleys.
But it’s also possibly part of a cycle: Tents and jerry-rigged homes crop up, and eventually degrade into dens of drug-use and filth. Someone calls the cops, the cops kick everyone out, but sooner or later people come back.
Tent City wants to break that cycle, at least for its own people. The residents – mostly couples, but also a few single women who want the protection of a group – think if they can prove that they’re responsible, the city and the cops will leave them alone, and maybe even help them out.
To ensure orderliness, residents must respect a few basic ground rules: no visitors after 10:00 pm; no drugs or fighting in or around tents; respect your neighbors; no harassing any tent neighbors or visitors; no clutter or garbage outside of tent area.
So far the rules seem to be working. The community has already kicked out a couple of residents who were using drugs, Acosta says. And, the lot is clean, compared to surrounding encampments. In front of Acosta’s tent is a small trash can, and there are other larger ones scattered about between tents.
Another major element is safety, which means no unwanted guests. Residents say they feel safe for the first time in a long while, knowing they’ve got others to watch out for them. It may seem strange, residents say, but petty thieves prey on the homeless too.
Professionals who work with the homeless on Soledad Street know little about the movement.
“I would really say that’s an emergent organic leadership that’s coming to the fore, more than anything we’ve instigated,” says Seth Pollack, director of CSUMB’s service learning program.
Acosta says residents got the idea after attending a meeting of the Salinas Downtown Community Board, a homeless advocacy council now working to get portable toilets for Soledad Street.
During the meeting there was talk of the Dignity Village, a city-recognized encampment in Portland, Ore. Acosta hopes Salinas will follow suit and partner with residents to create temporary shelters that will allow them to get on their feet without fear of getting caught up in another sweep.
She says not everyone on the streets is an addict – she was the victim of housing fraud, and lost her home and her job. Others in the community just want to be left alone, and not be mixed up with the roughhousers elsewhere on the street.
Dorothy’s Kitchen coordinator Rick Slone believes the effort could bring public empathy to the plight of the homeless – a step in the right direction. But he isn’t confident the plan will work, at least not before the next sweep. There are a number of issues with the lot Tent City occupies, not least of which is the toxic lead beneath the ground.
Residents say if they get swept away, they’ll just restart the encampment.
“I think it’s really cool everyone’s come together and banded together as a community,” says DJ Olf, 25, who says he’s been homeless in Salinas since February. “We all kind of look out for each other as family, which is a really rare thing among homeless people.”