Story and photos by Royal Calkins
If the residents of Chinatown in Salinas are worried about the coronavirus, it isn’t obvious.
They still hug their friends and stand too close to passersby. When they line up for meals at Dorothy’s Place, headquarters of sorts for this sad urban campground on Soledad Street several hundred yards from Oldtown Salinas, they stand close to the person in front of them, maybe so no one can take cuts.
On Thursday shortly after noon, an older fellow talking to a visiting reporter flagged down a friend passing by on a bike. The older fellow slipped a fifth of Jim Beam Kentucky Fire out of the pocket of his army jacket and handed it to the guy on the bike, who, depending on how you look at it, took a healthy or unhealthy swig from the bottle.
- Previous story: Managing vulnerable populations during the pandemic
There weren’t any public health workers handing out masks or bottles of sanitizer but word was circulating that things were going to get better soon. There were few places to wash hands much less wash the rest of a person, to wash clothes or forks or spoons or anything else. Toilets? Only a couple, so be prepared to wait.
However, and let’s all keep our fingers crossed, city officials say the Chinatown Navigation Center will reopen on Friday after having been closed for eight months. Eight terribly difficult months for the hundreds of people who live in the tents and tent-like structures that line the sidewalks just across the tracks from downtown.
There also has been talk over the past few days about hand-sanitizing stations coming any time and some portable toilets to supplement those at the Navigation Center. Salinas City Councilman Steve McShane said he had expected the stations to be deployed Thursday but there were no signs of them by 4:30 p.m. He said he had put a call into the city manager to see what was up.
Before the doors were locked in June for lack of money, the Navigation Center building on Lake Street offered space for therapy, some child care, some health care and a needle exchange. More importantly as the coronavirus threat becomes more urgent, it also will provide 24-hour access to toilets and showers.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Andy Souza said Thursday while working on one of the dozens and dozens of bicycles piled along the streets. “Most people just go anywhere that people can’t see them but that doesn’t mean you can’t smell them.”
The Monterey County Health Department’s website carries a guide to avoiding a coronavirus infection. There’s lots of useful info about hand-washing and clothes-cleaning and other protocols. The very last tip at the bottom is aimed at the homeless. It says, “If you don’t have a place of residence, it is strongly encouraged you find shelter.”
“What a great idea,” said Chuck, who was a bronc buster in Oklahoma a few decades ago. Later he was a writer and he’s trying to revive that career by writing a book about Chinatown, the largest settlement of homeless folks in Monterey County.
Chuck said he wonders why the powers that be can’t open some school gymnasiums at night to provide shelter and restrooms to his fellow campers. Or, he suggested, some of the private health clubs that are closed for the duration.
“There would be plenty of volunteers to run the thing,” said Chuck. “Some people say there wouldn’t be, but I think people are generally good and they want to do good things.”
Two women who volunteer as advocates for the residents said they were in touch with city officials and were hopeful that change is coming as soon as Friday. And, by the way, said both Pamela Weston and Rita Acosta, people should stop calling homeless people homeless people. Much better is “unsheltered vulnerable people.”
Nearby sat Daniel, a curly headed man who said he had heard almost nothing about the coronavirus.
“What I do know about is Corona beer,” he said. “Look close at the label and you’ll see lots of things.”
From inside his blue tent, Daniel’s girlfriend offered some advice. “Don’t listen to him.”
The Monterey County Health Department, by the way, said Thursday that it is ending the daily coronavirus updates on its website. Too time consuming.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.