Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian Russell Koontz talks about what life is like while living along the Corralitos Creek off of Airport Boulevard in Watsonville.

In a weed-strewn, vacant lot on Airport Boulevard Tuesday, Bryan Hilgeman was busy around his makeshift tarp dwelling where he lives, along with about 40 people in the unsanctioned homeless camp.

He says he’s been unsheltered since his wife died two years ago. 

When the city moves forward with plans to clear the site soon, he doesn’t know what will happen.

“This is a lot of people’s homes right now, and they don’t have anywhere else to go,” he says.

The lot can be cleared after the Watsonville City Council on April 9  deemed it a public nuisance.

The unanimous decision means that city officials can now begin the process of evicting residents and cleaning up the site, which is located across the street from the Freedom Centre shopping plaza that includes Safeway, Big Lots, a U.S Post Office and Rite Aid.

According to city staff, dozens of people are camping in the area, pitching tents and erecting makeshift shelters—some with fences—with some even digging burrows in the ground.

A walk through the site reveals bike frames, gardening tools, food, tarps, mattresses, shopping carts and piles of trash, along with ubiquitous used syringes. 

Resident Russell Koontz was cleaning up his site, piling garbage on a large sheet of cardboard to be hauled to a receptacle at a nearby store. He says he thinks the city should provide a dumpster so that residents can take better care of the area.

But the trash is just a part of the problems vexing local officials about the camp.

Residents also bathe and wash their clothes in adjacent Corralitos Creek, which threatens the local environment, said Watsonville Senior Planner Ruben Vargas.

City officials say that the property owners—KDS Dhaliwal Investment Inc. of Fremont—and employees Karam and Kulwinder Singh—have refused to deal with the problems.

The issue began in 2021, when the city contacted KDS and asked them to clean the land. They agreed, and the city provided dumpsters and manpower to help.

But the illegal campers returned, and when the city contacted the company on July 3 last year after receiving several complaints from residents, KDS did not respond, Vargas said. 

“Everybody was getting calls,” he said. “We initiated a case, we issued a notice of violation to the property owners and called a meeting with the property owner.”

But according to Vargas, Karam Singh wanted only to talk about developing the land, even when Vargas told him that was a separate issue.

The Pajaronian tried unsuccessfully to reach KDS  for this story.

The city followed up on July 20 and 31, as the encampment grew larger and nothing was done.

Finally, the city had a final meeting with Singh on Aug. 2, which yielded no results, Vargas said. 

“At the end of that meeting I specifically told Mr. Singh that he needs to clean up his property,” he said. “He cannot allow it to remain in the state that it’s at.”

Singh again refused, basing that decision on his assertion that the city wouldn’t allow him to develop the property, despite assertions that was a separate issue, Vargas said.

After that, Singh refused correspondence by mail, Vargas said.

Vargas said that, while the lot is strangely shaped and hard to develop because it’s near a watershed, it has the necessary infrastructure and has development potential. 

The city made a final attempt at a resolution on March 11—to no avail—when Kulwinder Singh threatened to sue the city.

Now, with the council’s decision, the city can clean the site, bill KDS for the work and potentially add the cost to their property tax bill, Vargas said.

“Abatement is a last resort,” he said. “We don’t want to go through this. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for our property owners, it gets very costly.”

Councilman Casey Clark questioned why the city has waited so long to make the move, saying the situation at the site is “unacceptable.”

“You are a much nicer individual than I would be with this, because the second someone says ’nope, don’t care,’ that’s when we start the process. I feel that we’ve given this individual way too much leeway.”

“It’s unacceptable on the side of the property owner, and the side of the squatters, and the people who are doing irreparable  harm to our environment and our community,” Clark said. 

Councilman Jimmy Dutra said that, unless the abatement includes placing barriers around the property, the people living there are likely to return.

“We have to think of a solution,” he said. “I know that people don’t like putting fences up, but they work.”

Vice-Mayor Maria Orozco agreed.

“If we’re really trying to prevent this from happening, we need to do our due diligence to do whatever we can to ensure we are addressing this issue,” she said.

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA. https://pajaronian.com/r-p-reporter-honored-by-csba/

10 COMMENTS

  1. Jimmy Dutra is absolutely right. Invest in some fences, and make sure they not just a bunch of chicken wire. 🙂

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    • Yes Jimmy Dutra is correct. He is also the only one , according to a merchant, that complained about the horrible mess ( disgusting & extremely unsanitary) out side the little strip mall next to old KMart. It’s not great now but it is better. . Thank you Jimmy for caring & speaking up for many of us.

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  2. Boy it’s going to be an interesting volley of comments on this subject. Should be a good show!

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  3. I’d love to see a public park on this site where people could enjoy and learn about the creek.

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  4. It makes me sick that people in watsonville don’t have conpation for one another where are this people supposed to go. We are talking about humanbeigns right? Has anyone ever taken the time to go down to their camp and talk to people. Find out what we could do help as a community. I just don’t agree with being so self fish and cold to people who are already having a hard time. Everyone is just going to end up in the streets.. side walks…parks… places where your children play where u walk your dogs. One day I hope to see everyone working for equality among our community rich…poor… everyone needs a chance to keep on fighting

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    • Dude get over it I’ve been on my own working my butt off since I was 16 with no help from no one but my own and is just down right fu**ing lazy iv have sat in my car one day just eating lunch and I watch this guy sit with a singe beging for money in the 2 hrs of me watching and in shock on how much money this guy was getting hand I counted at least 300 dollars at least and sure im sure some probley a few 5 or 10 in the mix so say o well they have it hard cuz from what iv seen they are all just as capable of getting their stuff together and making it in the world just like me and you and everyone else so it’s just straight laziness so I’m all for the fences get him the heck out of there and keep pushing them on down the road if that’s the way it’s going to be so be it maybe they’ll finally realize that they got to get their s*** together and that’s it so don’t sit there and say poor me pour them pour this pour that it’s nothing but a bunch of b*******and what’s even more messed up about the situation is that they’re just going to end up getting more free handouts Free housing free food free this while I have to sit and I have to bust my chops every single day I want a free hand out maybe I should go stand on the corner s*** I’ve been making a lot more money than I’m doing now construction but I’m doing something clearly they’re making more money than I am to my nine to five 40-hour work week just by sitting on the corner with a sign put that in perspective and that’s just not one they’re all doing it why would they want to leave they’re making great money f****** if I had to sleep in the tent I just made 500 bucks today just for standing there I’m going to stand here anyways might as well make money ding ding ding we have a winner give me a break bunch of b******* get the f*** out of there make are town look like s*** with a welcome to Watsonville sign … Then tent tarp and a man all doped up past out on drugs that u payed for lol awesome grow up be a man get you s*** together like the rest of us

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    • Dude get over it I’ve been on my own working my butt off since I was 16 with no help from no one but my own and is just down right fu**ing lazy iv have sat in my car one day just eating lunch and I watch this guy sit with a singe beging for money in the 2 hrs of me watching and in shock on how much money this guy was getting hand I counted at least 300 dollars at least and sure im sure some probley a few 5 or 10 in the mix so say o well they have it hard cuz from what iv seen they are all just as capable of getting their stuff together and making it in the world just like me and you and everyone else so it’s just straight laziness so I’m all for the fences get him the heck out of there and keep pushing them on down the road if that’s the way it’s going to be so be it maybe they’ll finally realize that they got to get their s*** together and that’s it so don’t sit there and say poor me pour them pour this pour that it’s nothing but a bunch of b*******and what’s even more messed up about the situation is that they’re just going to end up getting more free handouts Free housing free food free this while I have to sit and I have to bust my chops every single day I want a free hand out maybe I should go stand on the corner s*** I’ve been making a lot more money than I’m doing now construction but I’m doing something clearly they’re making more money than I am to my nine to five 40-hour work week just by sitting on the corner with a sign put that in perspective and that’s just not one they’re all doing it why would they want to leave they’re making great money f****** if I had to sleep in the tent I just made 500 bucks today just for standing there I’m going to stand here anyways might as well make money ding ding ding we have a winner give me a break bunch of b******* get the f*** out of there make are town look like s*** with a welcome to Watsonville sign … Then tent tarp and a man all doped up past out on drugs that u payed for lol awesome grow up be a man get you s*** together like the rest of us

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  5. Still waiting for PA Watsonville, Dave and a Trujillo to comment
    Todd where is Tony Nunez? -$70 billion oh dear!

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  6. Well, since I’ve been requested to reply…
    The numerous private property owners in the county are between a rock and a hard place.
    Law enforcement won’t respond to trespasser complaints. Can’t blame them, the courts will refuse to hear or prosecute the cases.
    Should the property owner try and remove the squatters on their own, they risk violent confrontation
    or lawsuits of some sort, etc…
    I agree that fences will help, but apparently they’re bad for our southern border trespasser problem…
    Drug abuse and the homeless problem go hand in hand. Few, if any, can hold down a job and the responsibility of keeping a home when you’re addle-brained from drugs, “harmless” pot included.
    Perhaps old fashion work camps need to be brought back into vogue, where people can get sobered up,
    earn their meals and beds cleaning up the road sides, etc….

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    • Well put Dave! It’s becoming harder and harder to be a landlord in Watsonville. I’m glad my tenants understand that the increase in my taxes have to be passed on to them unfortunately.
      In the interim, homeowners insurance here in Florida is almost as bad as California but everything else is way cheaper. Gas at Sam’s Club is $3.29 for regular. Milk is $325 a gallon at the same Sam’s Club
      Be well!

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