Soledad Street in Salinas | Photo Illustration by Ezzard McCall
By Dennis Taylor
Rita Acosta says she won’t be surprised if this time next summer, she once again will have no shower, no toilet, no refrigerator, sink, or stove, no bed to sleep on, no roof over her head — only a tent in a park, or on a sidewalk, or a patch of dirt in the gritty Chinatown district of Salinas.
She resides today in a government funded low-income housing project in the area — but she knows her fate can change at any time.
Acosta has mostly lived in the elements since 2012, after the loss of her home and a separation from her husband put her on the streets with two chihuahuas and nowhere to go.
No room at the inn
Because of her dogs, Princess and Prince Charming, she says she was turned away that first night from Chinatown’s emergency women’s shelter at Dorothy’s Place, the nonprofit sanctuary that has provided shelter, food, clothing, laundry facilities, medical treatment and other services to the city’s marginalized population for almost 40 years.
What now, Acosta wondered, what next? It’s a question homeless people ask themselves every day.
“I saw someone I knew who said, ‘Just pitch a tent, Rita, that’s what everybody else does,’” remembers Acosta, who trudged a few blocks to Sherwood Park, a spot near Old Town Salinas where the ragged people go.
And that’s when a dismal new life began for a proud lifelong Salinas resident, a mother of five who today has 15 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
‘Find a bucket’
“Where do you go to the bathroom?” she asked a fellow park dweller.
“Find a bucket,” she was told.
Acosta is no different from most people. She endured sleepless nights, wondering who might be outside her tent each time her dogs barked. Sometimes she’d hear gunshots, or the cries of people who were physically or mentally ill, or addled by drugs, or were simply in despair.
She also didn’t like pooping in a bucket.
“Why doesn’t this city provide a porta-potty?” she complained to her Sherwood Park neighbors.
Don’t waste your time, she was told. We’ve been asking forever. You’ll never get one out here.
“Really?” she retorted. “Watch me.”
‘Make a Difference’
In her bilingual book, “Make a Difference” (published in 2020, available on Amazon), Acosta tells the story of the quixotic battle she’s fought for more than eight years against a problem that has festered in Salinas and Monterey County. Homeless people, with nowhere else to go, dwell under bridges, alongside railroad tracks, on sidewalks, in parking lots, next to the freeway, or on rural roads. They stay until the police order them to leave, and city workers plow away their mess, trashing any belongings the owners had to leave behind.
“We know a one-legged man at Sherwood Park who was in the hospital one morning when the city did its sweep,” Acosta remembered. “They threw away his prosthetic leg and his wheelchair. He doesn’t have a prosthetic leg anymore.”
Acosta says the cleanup crew also took a cement plaque the Sherwood community had placed in the park, memorializing a friend who had died on that spot. And they trashed a poster made by a homeless woman, bearing the name of her deceased brother, with newspaper clips telling the story of his murder.
“What kind of person does that?” she wonders.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’
And where do the homeless go when they’re told to pack up and leave? “Out of sight, out of mind,” Rita says with a shrug.
She says she is tired and angry, but doggedly determined to chip away at a towering problem in her hometown. The alternative, of course, is accept the horrific hand she’s been dealt.
She makes frequent appearances at city and county meetings whenever homelessness is a topic of discussion. She steps up as a defender, advocate, spokesperson, or liaison whenever police, city workers, or media show up at a homeless camp. She confronts government officials, asking where all the grant money is being spent, and explaining why certain ordinances are thoughtless and inhumane. She suggests alternative approaches, and speaks up when she thinks police and city workers are going beyond their authority. She has sued the city five times.
“The last time, City Manager Ray Corpus sued me back, and I said, ‘Let’s go for it, because you guys know you’re doing wrong. You’re not helping anybody,’” Acosta says.
Acosta, who filed suit on July 9, 2019, seeking a temporary restraining order against Corpuz on behalf of all residents of Sherwood Park, asking a judge to prevent the city, police, and city contractors from implementing a sweep, and seizing and destroying personal property.
“The city announced the prohibition so they could have VIP parking (in Sherwood Park) for the (California Rodeo Salinas),” said Acosta’s attorney, Anthony Prince, who specializes in representing the homeless. “When they kicked those people out of the park, they were all sleeping on the sidewalks.”
Corpuz and the city responded with a lawsuit of their own, arguing that Acosta’s request for a restraining order violated Corpuz’s right to free speech.
Acosta’s restraining order was denied, and the park was swept clean the following day.
Tents by the Garden
During the last months of 2012 and into 2013, Acosta helped spearhead a movement to make life better for her homeless brethren and improve the relationship with the city.
She and other local activists organized Tents by the Garden, which urged fellow tent-dwellers in Sherwood Park, Chinatown, and elsewhere to take responsibility for the cleanliness and safety of their own living spaces.
The Tents by the Garden community began sweeping its own area seven days a week. A committee within the camp set up rules for its community, and egregious violators – those deemed likely to attract police attention — were told to leave. Acosta convinced the city to cooperate by providing trash containers at homeless camps.
And she got that porta-potty. Acosta partnered with other homeless advocates to organize a group they called PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human). The first portable toilet, placed in Chinatown by the city, was a celebratory event, deemed worthy of a photo opp.
Behind a steel fence
Tents by the Garden worked for 11 months, Acosta says, until Jan. 31, 2013, when the city did a sweep, moving all belongings behind a steel fence it erected for the occasion. The porta-potty also was behind the fence, and community members were told they’d be fined for trespassing if they breached that barrier … so it was bucket time again.
When the coronavirus infected the homeless population, Acosta and others volunteered to do outreach for the city, helping housing coordinator Tina La Perle (an independent contractor/consultant with the city) communicate with leaders at each camp, and making a personal visit to every tent, to learn who was ill, who had mental problems, drug addictions, or other issues. With help from the Salvation Army, the church community, and others, Rita and her fellow volunteers fed more than 300 people every day during the pandemic.
And they helped people register for government services, including the low-income housing at Moon Gate Plaza that finally got Acosta off the street.
And Acosta — not a nurse, but a mom — has wandered through her community with hydrogen peroxide and gauze, cleaning the abscesses of heroin addicts who are too ashamed of their problem to seek proper medical help.
Aside from the personal gratification, Acosta says her only takeaway from the work she did in the camps was contracting the coronavirus herself, becoming so racked with fever that she was hearing voices. She finally dialed 911, left in an ambulance, and was hospitalized.
Though her victories have been multiple, the progress Acosta sees after eight years of activism and advocacy is minimal. She says portable toilets and trash containers that were provided at homeless camps have, in many cases, been hauled away. Shelters, affordable housing, and social services are woefully inadequate. City officials act slowly, if at all.
She also says police lack empathy toward the homeless, and are routinely abusive. They punish petty violations by writing expensive tickets that must be contested in a courtroom in Marina – an inconvenient venue for those without transportation.
‘We’re not criminals’
“We’re not criminals, but they’re making us criminals, passing out tickets to people who don’t have jobs, and don’t have transportation to get to the courts,” says Acosta, who was ticketed because her tent extended past the halfway point of a sidewalk on Main Street at Iris Drive, after she was forced out of Sherwood Park. “So people go to jail, or get probation, and wind up dealing with problems they never had before.”
City council routinely disappoints her with much talk, but little action. Ordinances, she says, make homelessness intolerable. And the sweeps continue, pushing people out of their encampments, without suggesting workable alternatives.
“I’ve lived in Salinas for more than 50 years, raised my children here, and I used to be proud to live here,” Acosta says. “But now I keep asking, ‘When did we become a city that’s OK with treating homeless and low-income people the way they do?’”
Still waiting, still suffering
She feels both blessed and guilty to be living in the Moon Gate Plaza complex, three floors removed from the dire poverty that still afflicts the friends and acquaintances she’s made over the past eight years. Others who applied for the same benefits when she did are still waiting, still suffering.
“I’m here, but I don’t enjoy it all that much, because I know I’m probably going to end up losing it, and be back out there,” she says.
“Homeless people are given false hope,” Acosta adds. “They get crushed, again and again. They get sick. They get depressed. They commit suicide, or use drugs and OD. They live with fear and stress because they have no idea what’s coming next, and don’t know where they’re going to go.”
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