corralitos creek airport boulevard encampment
Edward Lovell Jr. pauses for a moment while walking his dog Cotton after staying many nights at a homeless camp along Corralitos Creek on Airport Boulevard across from Freedom Centre. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Edward Lovell Jr. steps out of a small homeless encampment on Airport Boulevard in Watsonville one hot and sunny day with his friendly, frisky mutt Cotton on a leash.

Lovell, 43, estimates he is one of about 20 people who stay in the unsanctioned encampment, which is located adjacent to Corralitos Creek, across the street from the Safeway store.

Gazing ruefully at a large pile of trash near the road that came from the encampment, Lovell says he wants more help from the City of Watsonville such as portable toilets and a dumpster.

The pile, he says, comes from residents’ efforts to keep the space clean, and stop the trash from entering the creek.

“We’ve been bagging up this garbage,” he says. “But we have nowhere to put it. If they came by with a truck, we’d throw it all in there. This place would be immaculate.”

Even if a garbage truck would make a quick stop, “we’d even load it for them,” he says.

“People don’t like living in filth,” he says.

But such services are hard to come by for homeless people, whose day-to-day existence is made up of trying to protect their possessions and finding the bare necessities, Lovell says. 

“If I had a place where I knew my stuff wasn’t going to get stolen or the city wasn’t going to come and take my s–t, if I had a stable place, I’d be working,” he says. “I’d be doing something positive with my life.”

Rising concerns

Last winter, Lovell says the rapidly rising creek forced him and other residents to flee to higher ground. Everything he owned washed downstream, he says.

And Lovell and his fellow unsanctioned campers could see a repeat of that, as an El Niño weather pattern expected this winter could bring another series of heavy rains to the Central Coast.

But whether those rains will bring a repeat of last winter—when a series of punishing winter storms brought widespread flooding throughout the county—is still unknown, since El Niño patterns primarily affect Southern California and have in the past skirted the area, says National Weather Service forecaster Sarah McCorkle.

In the meantime, residents want to see the encampment cleared out, or at least the piles of garbage to be removed.

Gloria Hanrahan says she has reached out to officials from Watsonville and Santa Cruz County, but seen no results after being handed off to at least eight people.

“They say, ‘it’s not my job, it’s not my district,’” says Hanrahan, 90. “I’m so frustrated I could eat nails. That big pile of trash keeps growing. It’s not a good representation of our county or our city, and it’s a health hazard.”

If officials cannot house the residents, Hanrahan says, at least they can provide sanitary services such as portable toilets and dumpsters.

corralitos creek airport boulevard encampment
A man walks past a heap of trash that was collected by homeless people and set aside for collection in an encampment on Airport Boulevard where it crosses Corralitos Creek. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

An official response

Officials say they are currently working to clear the waterways of people.

“It’s something that’s already in the works,” says Watsonville City spokeswoman Michelle Pulido. “As always, safety of our community members is going to be our top priority.”

That includes doing in-person outreach in the homeless encampments, and connecting them with resources, she says.

But taking any action to clear the encampment, Pulido says, must come from the property owner. That has not happened. 

The County has a handful of emergency shelter options, including the Watsonville Veterans Hall and Salvation Army in Watsonville, and Housing Matters in Santa Cruz.

In the unincorporated parts of the county, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Community Policing Team plans to monitor encampments and work with other agencies to clear debris and hazards, and offer shelter information and other resources to residents, says Sheriff’s spokeswoman Ashley Keehn. 

For encampments near waterways, officials’ first concern is residents’ safety, Keehn says, but they must also contend with environmental factors such as excessive trash, human waste, drug paraphernalia and erosion, all of which pose hazards to public health safety and water quality.

The Sheriff’s department is monitoring several encampments along Corralitos Creek, and working with the City of Watsonville, County Board of Supervisors and Public Works to address them. 

“The placement of these encampments are ever-changing, but the Sheriff’s Office Community Policing Team is consistently monitoring the unincorporated area for encampments that pose a threat to our waterways,” Keehn says.

An ongoing challenge

Santa Cruz County Housing for Health Director Robert Ratner says that the County’s Office of Response, Recovery, and Resilience helps coordinate efforts in advance of severe weather and storms, with staff from multiple departments participating.

“People living without shelter is an ongoing national and state challenge that negatively impacts the people without homes and their communities,” Ratner says.

The County is working with United Way/211 on an effort to create more real-time shelter availability information, Ratner says.

But even with the amount of emergency beds available, county officials every year face one grim reality: 

“There are not enough shelter beds for all people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the County,” Ratner says.

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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.


  1. Perhaps lets nip it in the budd and learn a lesson from Santa Cruz – Case in point: the San Lorenzo River encampment.

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