[This story has been updated from a previous version. — Editor]
WATSONVILLE—About a dozen nonprofit leaders and community advocates asked the Watsonville City Council at its Tuesday meeting to address the city’s mounting homelessness issues that have been further compounded by a recent rainstorm.
Among the concerns brought forth to the elected leaders: an increase in brazen harassment of downtown business owners and a dispute over a camp that homeless advocates set up on Dec. 12 in a city-owned parking lot adjacent to the Buddhist Temple on Bridge Street.
In the latter issue, people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting say that the camp is serving as a warming center for people experiencing homelessness. They also say that the city and Santa Cruz and Monterey counties have largely failed to provide them access to services, something both jurisdictions say is not true.
“We need tents, we need food, we need an emergency resolution to fund a warming center and expand shelter options because people have nowhere to go,” one woman said. “And, really, that’s the problem.”
On Thursday morning the city gave notice to the people staying there that they would need to remove their belongings from the area to allow Public Works employees to clean the lot on Sunday morning. Watsonville spokesperson Michelle Pulido said Thursday that the cleanup is part of the city’s regularly scheduled cleanings that it does at various homeless encampments throughout the city.
But Anthony Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union/Statewide Organizing Council, said that it would be a “harmful act” for the city to move the people staying at the lot and their property. Prince says that the people are members of the Pajaro/Watsonville Homeless Union, which he represents. They were displaced by a recent cleanup on the Monterey County side of the Pajaro River levee conducted by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
A federal judge a few weeks ago placed a temporary restraining order against Monterey County, giving the county and the residents until Monday to get hotel vouchers and work out a plan to move the people into those hotels. Prince said that the judge in a case status hearing on Thursday ordered the Homeless Union and Monterey County to continue working toward housing the homeless people with hotel vouchers. He also said that Monterey County has talked with hotels in Watsonville that will accept the vouchers.
“This is a very serious situation … we’re about a week away from Christmas and more rain is coming,” he said. “We’re strongly advising that the city refrains from any action.”
Watsonville Interim City Manager Tamara Vides, who took the reins from outgoing City Manager Matt Huffaker on Tuesday, said in an interview that medical providers such as Salud Para La Gente and the Homeless Persons’ Health Project have visited the camp and tried to connect the people there with services available to them.
“I think what is a priority is first finding out where they came from, and what resources that they’re eligible for,” Vides said. “There are many, many ways that a person can be eligible to receive resources … There are resources today that are available in Santa Cruz County and in Monterey County for those people and we want to link them to them.”
People at the camp told the Pajaronian Wednesday afternoon that roughly 20 people slept there Tuesday night—some stayed in their vehicles but the majority slept on the floor. They also said that they have called both Grace Harbor Women’s Center and the Salvation Army for help in transitioning people into shelters. But they say there are not enough beds available at local shelters, and that Watsonville Police Department officers have said they will cite or arrest them if they do not leave the lot.
But Pulido says that WPD’s Crisis Assessment Response and Engagement team, which pairs officers with mental health liaisons, has multiple times offered people at the camp access to services, including beds at local shelters.
“They have all refused,” Pulido said.
The Watsonville City Council could not take any action on the concerns, but some of the councilmembers said they had visited the camp or met with community leaders to discuss what the city could do to help.
Councilwoman Rebecca Garcia, for instance, said she had met with 17 other leaders from around Santa Cruz County after several downtown businesses and service providers said they were struggling to deal with an uptick in violence, drug use, “indecent exposure” and harassment from people experiencing homelessness.
“Several of the agencies shared what they are doing to provide resources for the homeless, but many more shared that they are not providing services but are being impacted by the prevalent number of homeless in downtown,” she said. “The county will be having conversations with others to see what role they can play in addressing homelessness in Watsonville.”
Garcia said that a county-wide committee will meet on Dec. 28 to decide how to move forward on the issue.
Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County Executive Director Maria Elena De La Garza said that the recent meeting was “just a start.”
“It’s a crisis downtown,” she said. “We know that it’s raining and it’s cold and we don’t have anywhere for folks to go. We’re concerned about how we can come together as a community to continue our response, to continue to understand that we need different strategies and to help support.”