Swept Up

Nonprofit developer MidPen Housing is building Moongate Plaza in Chinatown, expected to be completed this year.

Lisa Garcia used to work at Walmart, then as a strawberry picker. But the psoriasis on her hands got too painful for her to keep working. Then her husband, who works in construction, found himself out of work. About six months ago, on Garcia’s 60th birthday, the couple became homeless for the first time. They began sleeping in a tent next to farm fields off of West Market Circle near the Davis Road overpass in Salinas.

Another first came for Garcia on the morning of Nov. 18. A Salinas police officer greeted her in her tent at around 9:30am, ordered her to take the structure down, and wrote her a citation with a court date of Jan. 28.

“My husband had just put a huge piece of cardboard around the tent to try to keep me warm,” she says. “And on the side of it, we had his tools, our lawnmower and our stuff that we’ve saved.”

As far as the city’s enforcement of camping and public health and safety goes, Garcia had it easy; she found a friend to help take out the poles and folded up the tent, and covered the tools with a tarp. (Her husband, who’d just landed a construction gig, was at work.) She said they planned to set up the tent again after 7pm and remove it before 7am the next morning to comply with city rules.

Homeless people and advocates in Salinas say that enforcement has increased in recent months, noting a sweep of Sherwood Park just before the California Rodeo in July as a turning point. In the cases of more extensive cleanups, personal belongings that aren’t stored are removed and discarded.

“We want a moratorium on the sweeps,” says Wes White, the co-president of the local Homeless Union group. “How can people grow if you keep cutting them at the stalk?”

(White himself is technically homeless, but currently housed in a living room.)

That’s a message White, Garcia and other homeless residents were planning to take to the Nov. 20 meeting of the Leadership Council of the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers, after theWeekly’s deadline.

White’s message for CHSP: Homeless service providers “should be the first people out.”

The city issues notices of cleanups, in both Spanish and English, at least 72 hours in advance. For example, a warning of a cleanup planned at Carr Lake on Nov. 20 was posted on Nov. 15, and emailed to officials with the Salinas Police Department, code enforcement, public works and CHSP.

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“You are being provided advanced notice of the scheduled cleanups to allow you time to remove and secure all of your personal property away from this location,” the warning reads. (It notes a phone number and times – 8am to noon Tuesday and Thursday – when people can retrieve their belongings.) Such notices have become commonplace, as frequently as once a week.

But CHSP’s interim executive director, Elliott Robinson, says even with a few days’ notice, outreach workers aren’t always available to respond urgently. And if they do, they risk being associated with police or public works officials, jeopardizing the trust they’ve built with the homeless community. “If they’re attached to the same day as a cleanup, their ability to reach out and have neutrality is weakened,” Robinson says. “We would like to have more notice to go out there substantially before the cleanup.”

Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz notes that the city is working to comply not only with legal protections for homeless people – for instance, cleanups happen between 7am and 7pm, meaning people can still camp overnight – but also protecting access for the public at large by keeping sidewalks and parks clear. “Our job here at the city is health and safety,” he says. “Accessibility for all citizens is the bottom line, not just for some.”

Corpuz also notes the various projects already in the works that will accommodate some of the city’s homeless: In Chinatown, nonprofit developer MidPen’s Moongate Plaza is expected to open by 2020, and Salinas officials are asking to designate 40 of 88 rooms for the neighborhood’s homeless. The city is partnering with the county on a 100-bed shelter expected to open in mid-2021. And the city is also at work on renovations to open a navigation center with space for 15 beds.

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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