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Salinas seeks to end its homeless problem by decree

Sofia, Bulgaria - November 4, 2014: Homeless man is sleeping on a bench in the center of Sofia. Years after joining the EU Bulgaria is still the poorest country in the union.The city of Salinas plans to try to do Tuesday what no other cities have been able to accomplish — to solve its homeless problem by ordinance.

The council meets at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Rotunda, just yards from where a few dozen homeless people and their advocates have been holding nightly sleep-ins for the last several months.

According to a city staff memo to the council, that has resulted in numerous complaints from city employees and others who say they have been intimidated or harassed by the campers and offended by the defecation and urination that occurs in the bushes and elsewhere when toilet facilities aren’t available. The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to camp, loiter, defecate or urinate on most public property in the city and a fair amount of private property.

While a handful of cities have addressed the same issues issue by creating additional shelter space, most have responded by criminalizing homelessness, using citations and various police powers to break up encampments when they become too large to ignore.

Santa Cruz has been a magnet for transients for decades because of its youth culture, good weather and seemingly open attitudes and it has found itself erecting a series of legalistic and administrative barriers to keep the complaints down. Santa Cruz police told the City Council that the department issued 1,913 camping citations last year, with about 3 percent of those involving sleeping in a vehicle. Police Chief Kevin Vogel said 96 percent of the citations went unpaid. A news account on his report to the council didn’t say whether the issuance of those citations had any impact on the underlying issues.

A memo to the Salinas City Council from Michael Mutalipassi, senior deputy city attorney, says violations of the ordinance would be criminal misdemeanors.

“A purpose of the proposed ordinance,” he wrote, “is to maintain public and private lands, streets, sidewalks, alleys, ways, creeks, waterways, parks, playgrounds, recreation areas, plazas, open spaces, lots, parcels and other public and private areas within the city, in a clean, sanitary and accessible condition. A further purpose of this proposed ordinance is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community. To that end, the proposed ordinance makes it unlawful to camp, establish, maintain, operate or occupy camping facilities, or use camp paraphernalia on public or private property subject to some exception.”

He continued, “It has been reported by city employees, as well as members of the public at large, that overnight camping has specifically interfered with their use of public buildings, public sidewalks, public streets, parking lots, parking garages, and other open spaces, most notably the public space surrounding the John Steinbeck Library and the public space in front of City Hall. City employees leaving City Hall have been confronted by overnight campers screaming, yelling, and displaying other aggressive and erratic behavior that has made those employees fear for their safety upon ingress or egress to or from the building. City employees have also been confronted by overnight campers subjecting them to unwanted sexual comments.”

Mutalipassi wrote in some detail that there have been numerous complaints about the smell.

“The ordinance creates a prohibition on public urination and defecation except when using a urinal, toilet, or commode located in a bathroom, restroom, or other structure specifically designated for the purpose of urination and defecation.

“In addition to establishing a prohibition on camping,” he went on, “the ordinance will prohibit certain conduct in public areas or areas associated with business establishments or public buildings. The ordinance shall make it unlawful to loiter in a manner as to prevent the free passage of the public on any public street or sidewalk. It shall also make it unlawful to loiter at the entrance or exit of any business establishment or public building if that action obstructs or hinders the free passage of the public. The ordinance makes it unlawful to walk, stand, sit, or lie on any monument, vase, decorative fountain, drinking fountain, bike rack, trash receptacle, median, fire hydrant, street-tree planter, berm, utility cabinet, railing, fence, planter, or upon any other public property not designed or customarily used for such purposes. The ordinance further makes it unlawful to take any action, in public, to abuse or mutilate any tree, plant, or lawn.”

To read the ordinance, go here and click on the link for the agenda. From there, you can link to the ordinance.

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I half expected Wes White to show up for our interview pushing a grocery cart piled high with his belongings. He is, after all, an advocate for the homeless and he is homeless himself, at least part of the time. But he pulled up to the breakfast spot in a minivan stuffed to the ceiling with sleeping bags and other necessities for life on the street.

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White

White keeps the sleeping bags in the van during the day. At the stroke of 6 p.m., he deposits them at Salinas City Hall where, for some weeks or months now, the homeless of Salinas have been conducting a nightly sleep-in right outside the Rotunda where the City Council meets.

One night this week, the protest was a tidy affair, more like a group camp at Yosemite than a protest. Young kids had turned one row of tents into a maze and were cheerfully worming their way from the blue one to the maroon one and the red one held together with duct tape.

An older fellow was still pitching his tent on the cement. I asked why he didn’t put it on the softer grass. He looked at me like I was a fool.

“Sprinklers” was all he said.

Conspicuously absent were any campfires. The city said no to that. Less conspicuous but equally absent, restroom facilities. City officials complain that the nightly campout creates sanitation issues but bringing in porta-potties could make it a permanent situation. The city leadership is already embarrassed enough.

“Imagine if we were touring a major employer around, which hasn’t happened in a while, but if we did and they saw that, there’s no telling what they would make of it,” said a high-ranking city official who asked not to be named for fear that his front lawn would become a protest site as well.

“They’ll probably figure out who I am anyway.”

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After seeing this woman’s photo in a Partisan post about homelessness in Salinas, her family reached out in an attempt to find her. If you’ve seen her recently, kindly call or text 595-8899 so we can update her folks.

The sleep-in began over the summer after the city mowed down the much larger homeless encampment in Chinatown where maybe 300 people had been squatting, literally and figuratively, for lack of anywhere else to go. The protesters have varying agendas, but for the most part they are seeking city funding for better shelter than tents on the City Hall lawn.

On Wednesday, White tried to arrange a rally in the space that would later be used for the nightly protest. It was set for 3 p.m., placing it right up against the 4 p.m. City Council meeting. It didn’t turn out to be much. A dozen or so homeless folks, some flags, a few signs. A shopping cart. The council members did their best to pretend they didn’t see the tangle of people as they walked toward their meeting.

White, not so incidentally, is running for a seat on the City Council. He had announced his candidacy over the summer, in opposition to District 4 Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa, but the city attorney ruled that he couldn’t be on the ballot because he can’t prove that he lives in the district.

White says he is staying with a friend at the moment, a friend who lives in the district, and that he uses as his mailing address Dorothy’s Kitchen, the soup kitchen and shelter at the center of Chinatown. Many of the homeless have used the Dorothy’s Kitchen address to register to vote and the courts have signaled no problem with that arrangement, said White.

“The city said I had to be able to show I was living in the district 28 days prior to the filing period,” he said. “No homeless person can do that, so does that mean that you have to have a home if you want to run for office?”

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White protesting gun violence

“The voter registration form also lets you describe where you live, like near the corner of such and such and such and such. If that’s good enough for voting, it should be good enough for running for office.”

White is a young-looking 41. He is on the short side and he brings nervous energy to his mission. For the breakfast meeting, he wore a dark shirt and a tie. If he has an old Army jacket, he left it at home. His friend’s home.

He was vague about what had occurred to make him homeless. He describes himself as a Navy brat who grew up around the country. He says he worked with computers and other tech before coming to Salinas several years ago. He admits to a couple of arrests in his younger days but says he has stayed on the right side of most laws since then. He said he works as a substitute teacher in the Salinas schools and spends most of his free time advocating. He is the vice president of the Monterey County Homeless Union, which also uses the Dorothy’s Place address. There is no president at the moment.

After the city attorney said no to his candidacy, White announced he would run as a write-in but hopes to go to court within the next few days seeking a court order to put his name on the ballot.

Berkeley lawyer Anthony Prince, who has attempted to prevent the city from bulldozing the Chinatown encampments, is representing White. He said Thursday he hopes to file a petition for a writ any day now.

“They may have started printing ballots already and they go out in the mail in a few weeks, so we don’t have much time,” Prince acknowledged. “We’re working on it. We’ll hold a news conference when it happens.”

With the Nov. 7 election so close and with ballots already drafted if not actually printed, there is little likelihood that a court would order the addition of White’s name at this point But council elections in Salinas aren’t big productions and the number of voters participating isn’t particularly high. Even if his court challenge amounts to be publicity stunt, it could be a big boost to his write-in campaign.

Though he is strongly associated with the homelessness issue, White says he is not a one-topic fellow. He has been active in city charter reform efforts and was involved in an effort to recall a school board member. He sits on the city’s Airport Commission.

He has been a frequent critic of the Police Department, arguing among other things that it is sanctioning theft when the city confiscates the belongings of the homeless during the periodic sweeps of Chinatown.

Larry Thome has lived on the streets of Salinas off and on for five years. He says it’s time for the city to listen to “the likes of Wes and them others” and stop trying to run the homeless out of town.

“We’re always going to be here and unless they find a way to buy him off, he’s going to be out here every day, too,” Thome said while walking toward his camp on the outskirts of Chinatown. “It’s an endless fight and I doubt he can win it, but someone has to try to do something because the way things are, well just look at the way things are. Hell’s bells.”

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He sat on the curb outside a lean-to where a middle-aged woman still bundled against the morning chill hunched on a little padding against the hard Soledad Street sidewalk.

“Have you ever tried to survive on disability in the third most expensive county in the state?” he demanded to know from the man scribbling notes.

Down the block at Market Way and Soledad Street — the main crossroads in the cluster of tent-and-tarp shelters where hundreds of Salinas’ homeless have makeshift homes — a bullhorn amplified the voices of protestors Wednesday morning against city plans to raze the Chinatown encampment.

“Right now, they need to let us alone,” said the man, an 11-year resident of the Chinatown streets.

That’s what city officials decided to do, at least temporarily, on the first day of a long-planned cleanup of the warren of shelters erected by an estimated 200 to 300 homeless residents. Here’s an earlier Partisan look at the community.

Facing a knot of protestors and a few tense moments when a bottle flew and a man screamed at someone shooting video, city officials backed off plans to immediately begin clearing the homeless village hung along Chinatown’s fences and walls. Officials said they have 30 days to do the job under city ordinance.

For years, Salinas has made periodic sweeps in Chinatown to remove debris and rubbish for what officials have called public health hazards. The latest sweep — for which a federal judge cleared the way earlier this month — is different. This time, city contract crews will truck away property that homeless persons can’t carry and store it for up to 90 days at a city yard. Overnight camping would still be allowed, but everything must be packed up each morning.

“Whatever happened to the land of free?” a man in a black leather coat asked at the entrance to his tent shelter. A few feet away, a young woman cooed as she changed the diaper of her 5-month-old daughter.

Back at the corner, the bullhorn kept getting passed among Chinatown residents, homeless advocates and an official or two,

There was a promise that housing for 200 would be available within 90 days. City Councilman Tony Barrera said the cleanup needed to happen and so does suitable housing. “We don’t have the solution, but we need your help,” he said.

The councilman gave up the bullhorn as a few critics — what one homeless advocate called “part of the general staff of the poor people’s army” — shouted down his comments as hollow promises.

There was no great flurry of activity outside the shelters erected on the curving fence line visible from traffic on East Market Street. There were dozens of mostly black bicycles under the morning sun, along with a few stacked mattresses, a bunch of shirts hung for drying and loaded shopping carts. A few pigeons busily pecked at fresh crumbs.

“This is the civil rights movement of today,” said homeless advocate Wes White, ticking off earlier decades and their movements for blacks, women, gays. “(This decade) it’s the poor.”

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She calls herself simply Mrs. Coronado and she doesn’t think she or the rest of the Chinatown tent dwellers are standing in the way of anyone’s progress

His name is George. He didn’t mind sharing that. What he didn’t want to talk about was how long he has been living on the streets of Chinatown.

“What’s that matter?” he told his inquisitor. “How long, that makes no difference because time makes no difference, you know. What’s time ever done for you except make you old and it’s going to do that to me, too. Time is crap, man. It’s just crap.”

George is a heavily muscled man in his thirties. Wednesday he was wearing a tight tank top and lime green pants and he was trying to put some pedals on a bike, one of about a dozen bikes circling his tent. The Chinatown neighborhood in Salinas is home to maybe 100 encampments like George’s and even more bicycles, most of them missing a tire or a handlebar or some other important piece.

George had heard something about the city’s plan to clear out the encampments next Wednesday but had no plans to look for somewhere else to stake out some space.

“I never planned nothing in my life, man, and that might explain why I’m here, I guess.”

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon the neighborhood gave off a fairly mellow vibe. Most of the residents were off somewhere. Music played from several tents and people chatted with their neighbors.

Nights are different.

Mary, who wouldn’t give her last name, says she’s fine in the daytime but “scared out of my mind” after dark.

“I hide in my tent and I try to make no sounds at all, not move so no one notices me. I cover my head even when it’s hot.”

Mary said she is 44 and grew up in Arizona. She’s been homeless off and on since she dropped out of college.

“I’d have a home if I could put up with men but I never met a man who was good to me or good for me,” she said.

Mary said she is careful not to attract attention. A friend gave her a necklace when she was living in an encampment in Southern California and people staying nearby were talking about it.

“So that night I just put it outside my tent so they could just take it and not come into my tent after it.”

The city plans to scoop up the Chinatown tents and tarps and pallet houses next week because things have reached critical mass. There’s no plan on what to do with the people, no alternate accommodations in the works, but officialdom is frustrated by the situation and feels it has to do something, even if it’s wrong. The place is a lot like a refugee camp but without the Red Cross serving meals, without running water, without enough toilets, without enough security.

A man of about 60, a Pacific Islander, said he knows why the city is pushing the people out.

“It’s the new Taylor Farms building,” he said, referring to the 6-story office building recently completed nearby on Main Street. “They have people coming from all over. From Japan and Asia and England and when they’re up there on the top floor doing their barbecues they look down and the first thing they ask the Taylor brothers is ‘Is that your workers down there?’”

He didn’t want to give his name and he didn’t say how he knows what he knows. He said that Chinatown will start filling back up with homeless folks three or four days after the upcoming sweep.

“That’s what happened last time and the time before,” he said. He added that he isn’t that worried for himself because he owns a house that happens to be full of relatives at the moment and he has a daughter he can stay with if things get too rough on the street.

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There may be more bikes in Chinatown than homeless people

Across Soledad Street, from inside a pile of rugs and tarps, a woman called out to a man standing nearby, “Hey, mijo. Get my lunch.”

“Be quiet,” he replied.

“I won’t be quiet. My mouth won’t let me.”

“You be quiet.”

“You be quiet. Shut up and get my lunch.”

“OK.”

Another woman, Deborah, said she has been homeless for nine weeks and felt fortunate to be staying in a bunk provided by Dorothy’s Place, the neighborhood soup kitchen.

“I came here from Carmel,” she said. “I’d never been homeless before but I had to get out of a bad situation.”

Abuse?

“Verbal abuse,” she replied. She was carrying her belongings in a backpack because she has to leave Dorothy’s Place at 6 a.m. every day and find somewhere to hang out.

Another fellow without a name said the upcoming “raid” is “ridiculous.”

“There are like 2,600 homeless people in Salinas and like 300 beds and they’re not all for the homeless. They’re for the mentally ill and stuff. What do they think, everybody’s just going to leave town? Where the hell are they going to go.”

The man, 45ish, in an Army jacket and doo-rag, asked if the visitor could spare a couple of bucks for food.

“The Health Department just closed down Dorothy’s Place so we got no place to get food.”

The gullible visitor coughed up a couple of bucks and learned minutes later that, no, Dorothy’s Place had not been closed.

A sad-eyed young man sitting on a curb said he’d be glad to chat.

“Call me Ysidro,” he said. “That’s not my name but that’s what you can call me.”

“Things are pretty nice here right now,” he said,  “but you should have been here last week when it was raining. It was like living in a swamp but without fish or boats. It was like you could never get dry and even under a tarp or something the rain noise would never stop making you crazy.”

While Ysidro talked, a big, shiny, white Chevy Suburban drove by slowly, windows down, rap music pounding from inside. The driver was a fat guy with a beard.

“That’s the ice cream truck,” said Ysidro, “but he’s not selling ice cream.”

What is he selling?

“Not ice cream.”

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Raul has been a Chinatown regular since he was 12. At the moment, he makes enough from collecting cans to be able to afford a motel room

A friendly older man, Raul, sat on a bench below a No Trespassing sign and rested. He was worn out from a morning spent hunting down bottles and cans from trash cans, trying to fill the shopping cart next to him.

“Hard times,” he said. “Hard times.”

“I’ve been coming here since I was 12,” he said. “I’m 63 now. All of it has been hard. What do I know? Never be lazy.”

Raul said he makes just enough collecting bottles and cans to afford a room at the Royal Motel over by the In-N’-Out but isn’t sure how long that will last.

One of the striking things about the neighborhood is the amount of stuff, random stuff, that has essentially washed up on the side of the streets. There are the bikes, of course, and grocery carts, refrigerators, plastic toys, cardboard boxes, old signs, tree limbs, lumber of all types, plastic crates, garbage bags, bottles and cans, broken exercise equipment, a basketball hoop, broken toys, even generators, some that actually work. One of those was humming Wednesday under a tarp that also covered a camper shell. Inside, young men in backward baseball caps were smoking a joint.

“I don’t know those guys,” said the owner of the camper shell, a man in a San Jose Sharks shirt, “and I don’t know how they got in there. Scoot, you guys, OK.” They didn’t seem to notice.

Sitting alone inside her small tent was a young woman who said she liked to be called Mrs. Coronado. She wore several necklaces and her toenails were polished blue.

“It’s hard living here when you don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said. How long has she been staying here? She thought for five seconds or so and came up with “a while.” She said she’s from San Luis Obispo. She knows about the purge coming next week and is worried.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go or where anyone is going to go,” she said. “It’s not like we’re stopping progress or anything. We’re just living our lives.”

As she was telling her visitor goodbye, she had a request.

“Could you buy me an apple pie?”

The visitor handed over a couple of dollars.

“A la mode?”

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No one pays attention to signs like this in Chinatown

On the corner, three big guys wearing nylon sweatsuits were dividing a pile of cash within view of an older man who was repeatedly hitting a cinder block with a hammer for reasons unknown. There were no children in sight and only one dog, a terrier mix that flipped over onto his back and waved his little legs in the air whenever anyone came close. A social worker with a clipboard was interviewing two women who were holding hands.

An old biker-looking guy, probably in his 70s, sat on a folding chair and looked to be napping but then he barked “You’d better not take my picture.” He wore a red headband and a giant grey mustache.

OK, said the visitor. No problem. But can we talk?

“Sure I’ll talk. Whaddya want to know?

Tell me about this place.

“This place is heaven and this place is hell,” he said. “It’s where people land when they’re circling the drain.”

Why are you here?

“I’m here because everything I’ve ever touched I fucked up. I fucked up my work, I fucked up my family, I fucked up my friends. I haven’t had more than 10 bucks in my pocket in 10 years and if I did, I’d spend it on the worst booze in the world.”

What are you going to do when they clear this place out?

“Maybe I’ll get me a job and a car and a house and leave this place forever. Maybe I’ll get some new clothes and cut my hair and become respectable. Maybe I’ll run for mayor. Who’s the mayor now? Joe Gopher? Something like that. Maybe I’ll run for Congress or president.”

What are you really going to do?

“Hell if I know.”

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