In the shadows of Moon Gate Chinatown in Salinas awaits the opening of a low-cost apartment complex

Salinas resident Elizabeth Camacho in Chinatown. | Kyle Martin

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Story and photos by Kyle Martin

Chinatown, across the tracks from Oldtown Salinas and smack in the middle of the city, is a storied neighborhood with a few empty lots, several shuttered businesses and a throng of homeless people.

MidPen Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer with more than 100 properties throughout Northern California, is currently building a 90-unit apartment complex in Chinatown at 21 Soledad Street. The waitlist for the complex, called Moon Gate Plaza, is closed. And while the plan is to house some of the city’s lowest income earners and the formerly homeless, the public awaits confirmation that some of Chinatown’s homeless will get into the plaza’s rooms.

Elizabeth Camacho, 44, is among those hoping to get in. “I was born and raised here, and I never would go nowhere else,” said Camacho, who has been a homeless resident around Chinatown for about three years.

A few years ago, she lost her Section 8 housing and lived in an RV. Then her RV got towed, and she couldn’t pay to get it out. It’s nearby, she said, and sometimes she can see it from the street when she walks by.

She said she’s applied for Moon Gate Plaza’s housing and waits to hear more. Meanwhile, she sleeps in her car because she doesn’t like sleeping on the streets anymore. It’s too dangerous, she said. She said she hopes to get a spot in the new Chinatown building.

“It would be great because I’ve never known (until recently) what it’s like to be out in the cold,” she said. She would rather be housed, and if she doesn’t make it into Moon Gate Plaza, she’ll have to keep looking for and applying to more housing.

In what may be good news for Camacho and other homeless people in Salinas, MidPen will be conducting intake interviews for the complex’s hopeful new residents this month, according to Betsy Wilson, project director for MidPen’s Moon Gate Plaza.

Those who have applied for a unit at Moon Gate  will have their odds of placement sorted by a lottery system, and Wilson said she hopes for move-in day to fall somewhere around December of this year. December isn’t a hard and fast date, she said. There have been setbacks during construction that have pushed the opening date further behind this year already.

“We expect that we’re going to have a lot of folks who have experienced homelessness, whether they’re coming to us straight off the street or whether they’ve had homelessness in their recent past,” Wilson said. “We expect to see a lot of that, and we’ll have supports in place to help people be stable in these units. But the whole property is not specifically designated for only folks who are homeless.”

As for those on the street right now, like the dozens currently camping on the streets, sidewalks and alleyways in the area?

“I’m hopeful that we’re going to have a lot of the folks who are currently on the street in Chinatown,” Wilson said.

Onsite services will include three full-time staffers that will assist residents with case management, job search and placement assistance.

Wilson acknowledged that all the amenities of this new housing project will not solve the area’s homeless and housing issues.

“One of the things to keep in mind is while Chinatown has become a place where folks go when they have nowhere else to go, folks have nowhere else to go because we haven’t been building enough housing across this entire county and across this entire state,” Wilson said. “One housing development in this neighborhood is not the panacea for these issues. We need housing everywhere.”

She said that without more local support to build more housing, “we don’t have the subsidies that we need to continue to build more communities like this.”

For that, Chinatown residents might look toward the city with questions— and they might have to wait until the end of the year, when Luis Ochoa, community development analyst for the City of Salinas, says the final draft of the city’s Chinatown Revitalization Plan could be ready.

“We all know that housing is one of the biggest issues that is affecting cities throughout California,” Ochoa said, and that means people want answers about more housing in Chinatown. And homeless people, in order to get back on their feet, need permanent supportive housing, like the new Moon Gate Plaza.

But the city is still doing its research and asking around to see what the Chinatown community wants to see in their neighborhood’s future.

He said he’s heard from community members that the area needs a grocery store, a gym, office space, a community center and more.

While the wheels of government and construction turn slowly, the area’s many homeless residents still need a place to live. Christopher Ashley Burkett, a Marina resident, local college professor and homeless advocate, says this is a good time for the region’s residents and officials to take a good look at what can be done for its most vulnerable residents.

For starters, one simple solution would be opening a bathroom for the campers around Chinatown, who lost the area’s one public bathroom when the Chinatown Health Services Center closed this summer.

“It has to be incredibly hard,” Burkett said. “As cliche as it sounds, you can’t really start fresh every day. The struggle that you had the day before is still on you, and think about what that does if you’re trying to look for a job.” Burkett works with CSU Monterey Bay students who are interning with the Chinatown Community Learning Center, where many homeless people cycle in and out to use the computers and fill out forms for helpful services.

“It’s not a problem that is restricted to that particular area,” Burkett continued. “Anyone that lives in this county has a responsibility to make sure that anyone who’s struggling and vulnerable at least has a place to live. Because many of our family members, our relatives and community members make up that neighborhood of Chinatown, so it’s our responsibility to go back and get them.”

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Kyle Martin

About Kyle Martin

Kyle Martin is a multimedia journalist and devout San Francisco Giants fan from Dallas, Texas. After driving his 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee alone cross-country, through the circles of Hell known as the Texas Panhandle and Wyoming, he is now based in the Bay Area. He has experience writing and photographing for The Dallas Morning News, Denton Record-Chronicle, Dallas Observer and more. Send news tips and restaurant recommendations to kylebmartin96@gmail.com