Homeless in three stages of leaving Salinas removal coincides with the start of Rodeo Week

Video by Eduardo Cuevas

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Story and photos by Eduardo Cuevas

In the shadow of the Salinas Sports Complex, just across a chain link fence from rows of multi-thousand-dollar RVs and horse trailers, a few homeless people pushed carts and shuffled by with all their belongings at Sherwood Park early Wednesday morning. Those leaving were following the warning posted by the city at the fence of the Salinas Aquatic Center. July 18 was the park’s clean-up day and, coincidentally, the start of Rodeo Week in town.

At 7 a.m. — the supposed start of the clean-up — Pablo Sandovar and Juan Lopez lounged at the benches closest to the sign. Sandovar sat at a bench with arms folded, determining whether he should just move his things into bushes nearby and wait. Lopez, lying down under a table cordoned off by a baby blue beach cruiser, had pulled out a couple tall cans and food for the morning. “I’m just going to eat this and gather my shit together,” he said. Neither made a final plan. The city had posted a sign dated July 13 that it would be doing a sweep of a few local parks and streets that were home to large homeless encampments.

Usually, Sandovar said, about 15 to 20 people stay at Sherwood Park. “As a group, you kind of feel more secure, you know?” he said. “You know you can come and go as you please.” No one takes each other’s stuff.

He estimated far fewer homeless here today, though. As thousands flock to the rodeo, the city is doing a sweep of Sherwood to remove people camping or living at the park next door. Officials said it was a coincidence that the clean-up was on the first day of rodeo, marked by Professional Bull Riding.

Rather, Sherwood was part of a day’s cleaning for parks and streets throughout Salinas; inhabitants were given at least 5 days’ warning, far more than the legal 48-hour notice and the city’s internal 3 days’ notice. Among its provisions, the notice said personal property is being stored illegally at this location. In highlighter yellow, “Any and all personal property remaining at this location on the clean-up date set forth above may be removed without further notice,” it read. There will be storage containers for people prior to removal that they can pick up within 90 days at the City Storage sight at the South Sanborn Road Overpass, approximately 3 miles away. The warning also referred people to nonprofit groups and government agencies that provide homeless services.

As acting director of the city’s public works department, Don Reynolds is tasked with overseeing clean-ups, about 25 areas that need regular attention. The sweeps draw from policies taken in larger cities like Seattle and San Jose — notably with “The Jungle” in Silicon Valley, once one of the largest homeless encampments in the nation. The Salinas ordinance that authorizes the clean-ups has since been challenged twice in the California Supreme Court on the grounds of what counts as someone’s property as well as defining adequate notice of clean-ups, which Reynolds said has been resolved and faces supervision from organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance and the American Civil Liberties Union.

And while the clean-up took place at the start of the rodeo next door, he said it was part of a longer list of sweeps across the city. His approach to these actions is one of public health, referencing to the spread of the Black Plague in Europe during the Middle Ages. “If we’re not at least cleaning up once a month, the vermin and rodents and disease will spread,” he said.

Another issue is the will and resources for homelessness more broadly. “Basically, we’re trying to hold the line,” Reynolds said of city policies. “We’re treading water until there’s enough public will and enough resources to address traumatized people who are living in the streets. I don’t think we have enough people that realize that.” Again, looking at more urban areas, he pointed to Santa Clara County, where San Jose is the county seat, and the 2016 passage of its Measure A bond, which provides $950 million in funding for affordable housing for vulnerable populations.

Deni and Patrick — who declined to use their last names — live on the other side of the park, just across the fence where the Rodeo pitches its sponsorship tent and tickets start at $4,000. The two were gathering their belongings to move over to North Main Street, the main drag of Salinas. Like so many others, they planned to wait until the city finishes its clean-up, then move back to the park. These clean-ups are a regular nuisance for them, they said. The city tends to do them every couple weeks, though they said had ramped up as of late.

Patrick, who has lived six months at Sherwood and wore a military coat but is not a veteran, said he does not want to go elsewhere. “The other places are kind of rough, cause the crowds are kind of rough,” he said, referring to Chinatown — historically a large homeless encampment.

But despite the city’s notice, at 8 a.m. there had yet to be a sweep. Patrick said they normally do so around that hour. Deni, 28, said it has been better at Sherwood, too, even though she relapsed last week. She grew up down the street and graduated from North Salinas. For three months, she has lived at the park, having moved from San Jose, where she received treatment for addiction. “These are the ones I want to be with if the world ends,” she said of the others living there. “They know how to survive.”

Irene Chavez stopped by to help Deni and Patrick. A two-year native of the park, Chavez’s son, Miguel Medina Jr., was murdered in 2011, and Chavez said she did not run to family and friends for support. She does not want to move to Chinatown, where she feels she will get stuck. It is calmer at Sherwood, with no gunfire or trauma of constantly having to be alert. “I can’t start anything until I get stability or housing,” she said. “Out here it’s not rest and it ain’t sleep.”

She also stated there are no resources for those homeless like herself. “I don’t want to be here but this is where I’m at,” she said. “Like I said, there needs to be more resources in Monterey County (for people) that don’t know where to go, what to do about it.”

With a golf club and balls in hand, Tony Melendez stood next to the drying lawn sprawling out to the “Hat in Three Stages of Landing” statues. He was waiting for a friend, James, who lives at the park, but because he was not there Wednesday, Melendez planned to take practice shots. And being formerly homeless, briefly, but now a painter doing rodeo artwork at businesses and murals, Melendez likes hanging out with people at the park. “I really kind of like this environment with these people, because they’re humble and they’re really easy to get along with,” he said.

For all the pushes to clean the park, Melendez wishes there was an actual solution from the city, not just the sporadic sweeps. “I know they’re trying to clean up the city and stuff, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” he said. “People are laid off, people are not working, and a lot of them choose a way of drugs, so they’ll be out here bumming and whatever they do.”

It was not until 10 a.m. that city workers, the contracted landscaping company, Smith & Enright, and police officers arrived in trucks and police vehicles. Nearly everyone had already left. Officials moved first to where Lopez and Sandovar had been; only Lopez remained, appearing intoxicated and threatening staff and officers before he was escorted off with his belongings toward Bernal Avenue. From there, he and officials parted ways — the city continued combing through the park.

Officials, however, appeared to be considerate of many inhabitants’ belongings. One woman — sitting on a bench and apparently too high on something to communicate clearly — told officials to take all her things, saying she didn’t care. But the crew placed her belongings in a storage container, saying that once she sobered up, she would want them. Another man, in the middle of shaving in the men’s public restroom, was not asked to leave, only to pull up his pants.

In its 2018 report, the Monterey County Civil Grand Jury found a lack of leadership and accountability in dealing with housing and homelessness. It called for greater organization, transparency and commitment to fully address issues with a rising homeless population. According to the jury report, homeless numbers are the highest in the last 10 years at 2,837 in the 2017 biennial homeless census (though the county’s office of education has a broader definition), with a 57 percent increase in Salinas’ homeless population alone since 2015. Salinas has spent $5 million to address the issue, which includes clean-ups like Sherwood’s.

For Reynolds, this plays in part with increased efforts for funding, seen in larger cities and at the state level with Senate Bill 2, which provides assistance for housing, homeownership and homelessness. “The tide is changing, it’s just slower than the population increasing,” he said. “(But) you’re right, we’re not fixing a damn thing.”

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Eduardo Cuevas

About Eduardo Cuevas

Eduardo Cuevas is a writer, self-proclaimed nopal connoisseur and Salinas Valley native.