Swept Up, but Not Away: Authorities Clear Salinas Chinatown Homeless Camps
January 31, 2013
When the big trucks and the men in shiny white protective gear had gone, you could see the bones of Chinatown. You could read the graffiti on the walls, see the door frames of abandoned buildings, look into the nooks and crannies previously obscured by blankets and mattresses and tents and people. The street seemed uncharacteristically bare, even clean.
By the time the trucks were gone, Maria Lozano, with her carts stuffed with trash bags and blankets and knickknacks was also out of sight. The 69-year-old, bundled in a blanket-like shawl over a thick jacket, was surprisingly quick for her age. It helped that the front loaders and men with full-body Tyvek suits and rakes were coming to scoop away the collection of tarps and crates she called home.
Today was "the sweep." At 8 a.m. Salinas officials began a massive cleanup of Chinatown's Soledad Street, home to soup kitchen Dorothy's Place and many of the city's downtrodden. Though the homeless have known about the sweep for at least weeks, many waited until the authorities were upon them to start moving. Many said they didn't know where else to go.
Danita Macon, a spirited woman with a bright pink sweater and pink sneakers, helped Lozano—known by some as "Mama"—move her belongings. Lozano was living in a doorway under a tarp, her mattress lifted off the ground "so the rats don't get her," said Macon.
The friends scrambled to load the elderly woman's belongings into shopping carts and hand-trucks before the sweepers, closing in fast, got to her “cubby hole.”
"Come on Mama, let's go," called Macon, struggling with a fully loaded cart. "You got too much shit."
News photographers and reporters snapped photos of the scene.
"She better grab this stuff 'cuz I'm running out of patience," Macon grumbled. Lozano, who spoke mostly Spanish, trailed behind, collecting black plastic bags that seemed to be full of glass. She slung a cane over her arm, and strode briskly forward.
As the two worked, a rat shot out from somewhere nearby, causing some bystanders to jump back.
Rodents are a fairly common sight in these parts. The other night Armando Perez, who had lived on the street until today, said he saw one: “a big motherfucker as big as a cat."
He pointed at the doorway Lozano was living under. That was the kind of spot people huddled up in to do drugs, he said.
Above a doorway was a sign of what had once been there: “Arre’s Pool,” said a faded arrow pointing toward the building.
Now that Lozano’s home was out of the way, you could see what was written on the decrepit door and nearby walls. Somebody had scrawled several pictures of syringes. On a wrought-iron fence a few yards down was a sign that said: “Drug Free Zone. Area Under Watch for Neighborhood Security.”
Nearby, Public Works Department director Gary Petersen observed his people doing their duties.
"See the rats?" he asked. "If you wonder why we do this, that's why."
For the city, the sweep is necessary to maintain public hygiene—especially in a place where there's been problems with drug use, public urination and defecation. For the homeless, it feels like an injustice.
"She's already lost everything else," said Macon, who is not homeless but utilizes the services of Dorothy's Place. "Why's she gotta lose this?"
The last sweep was in August. Then, officials hauled away 10 full dumpsters of stuff, said Don Reynolds, project manager for public works. Sweeps are relatively routine. Eventually the homeless return. A recent count showed about 100 people living on Soledad.
"Yes, a lot of them will come back, but they'll come back to cleaner streets," Reynolds said. Noting a nearby television news van, the project manager said that renewed public attention has helped create progress.
Partly because of citizens’ interest in the affairs the homeless, the city has been working out solutions to the problem. One of the major issues the community faces is a shortage of beds in local shelters.
Another concern for some homeless people is that shelters don't allow pets. Others don't want to leave their significant others, because shelters don’t offer housing for couples.
"That's a good point," said Reynolds, who is part of a group that aims to revitalize Chinatown as well as help the homeless. "There are beds for couples in prison, but not in shelters," he said, referring to conjugal visitation rights for some prisoners.
This month's sweep was scheduled for the end of the month, because that's when some people, like Perez, receive pension. Perez said he was homeless for about a week and is moving into a motel tonight.
But others don't want to move off the streets.
That's a challenge, admits Jody Gulley, an outreach coordinator for Interim Inc., a nonprofit that works with homeless on Soledad Street. Gulley's work—to build relationships with the mentally ill and drug-addicted—is painstakingly slow, but effective, he said. For more than a decade he’s helped people get off the street into their own apartments.
Getting more immediate shelter is a part of the solution, he said. There are also some outreach efforts planned, like a barbecue on Valentine's day that will bring several homeless resource groups to Chinatown to make connections.
Those efforts may not be enough to assuage the present concerns of people like DJ Olaf, one of the members of Chinatown's Tent City.
Though Soledad Street was full of tent groups, Tent City prided itself on its organization and community-building. The "city" was composed of about 20 tents and 30 or so people, who banded together for safety. Members were required to adhere to a set of rules—like no drugs or fighting in or around tents—to stay part of the community. Many, like Olaf, were also volunteers in an effort to bring a portable toilet to the street earlier this month.
This morning, the Tent City was disbanded, and a large set of fences was put in place around the public lot the homeless were living on.
"This sweep thing has really broken (us) up," said Olaf, 25. "Not only does it seem pointless, but it feels like they're kicking us when we're down. I feel like the city should help us."
City officials said the tents were occupying a lot that is contaminated with toxic lead, and poses health concerns.
Rita Acosta, a leader in the Tent City movement, was taking some of her belongings to a nearby storage unit this morning. Somebody had donated a space for the homeless to leave their things, she said. One of the items she was storing: a trinket box filled with jewelry from her children.
Acosta, 45, was hopeful Tent City would stick together after the sweep, even though some like Olaf had already staked out new places to camp. She wasn't sure where she was headed, though she planned to make a stand in front of Salinas City Hall.
Like many of the others, she couldn't understand why she had to leave. Earlier in the month, officials had brought a list of phone numbers and addresses to organizations that might help the homeless affected by the sweep.
"The funny thing is the paper they gave us... brings you right back here to Dorothy's," Acosta said.
One woman, standing on Soledad and eating a bowl of oatmeal from the kitchen, said she'd be heading right back to her old spot tonight. She'd stashed her blankets behind a fence.
In a couple hours, the sweep was done. The street still buzzed with activity from Dorothy’s Place, but the heavy equipment was gone. The cops were gone. The men in white suits were gone. The street—at least for now—was clean.
“It’s the hardest thing I ask any of my folks to do,” Petersen, director of Public Works, said during the sweep. “We take no pleasure in this.”