Business / Economy

Deadline to clear out delivered to homeless at river encampment

River occupants told to clear out by city and offered shelter beds

Homeless at a Hollister encampment were notified by city staff on Dec. 30 that the deadline to clear out had come, and it was time to clear the area. Hollister Fire Department Division Chief Leo Alvarez was part of a group of code enforcement and police personnel that went down to the encampment along the San Benito River on Hollister’s west side. There, they encountered an estimated 10 occupants and reminded them of the city’s prior notices to leave the area.

“Today we're following up. We're not physically removing anyone,” said Alvarez. He noted that any upcoming actions will be decided upon by city leadership. “They've been offered multiple times to move on because of the hazards of the coming weather changes.”

Referring to a visit by city officials two weeks prior, Frank Hernandez, one of the emcampment's occupants, said, “I’ve bee here for three years, and that was too short of a notice. I'm still helping my girlfriend move her stuff.” He said that he has complied with the notice and cleared out his 13-by-10-foot structure. “We had to move, and I'm not worried about it.”

Hernandez estimated 30 people lived in the large encampment, some of which is visible from San Juan Road. The encampment sits on the riverbank at the edge of Hollister's western city limits.

“We’ve noticed today that about 50 percent have moved on, and the ones that are here are cooperative,” said Alvarez. 

With the city’s code enforcement duties having recently been assigned to the fire department, Alvarez oversaw the visit as a code enforcement matter rather than a police or fire department matter. He cited safety concerns, especially winter weather, as some of the key reasons for clearing out the camp.

“The construction of the shelters they have here aren't fire safe," he said. "If they have any medical needs or medical emergencies, they're hard to access. It could cause a danger for the fire personnel and the medics to come down here and assist them.” He added that winter cold and El Nino flooding are a possibility. “They're right on the river banks, so we don't want to have to come down here and do rescue or lose any lives. That's the whole purpose.”

When asked about the cold, Hernandez said, “That doesn't bother me. I'll just get a couple blankets to cover myself and a tent. The weather's not bad here in Hollister.” Regarding the potential river overflow, he said, “It hasn't even rained in I don't know how long.”

Joseph Lampkin, another of the occupants in the encampment, said of the river and weather, “I've been waiting to see a tickle for the past three or four years. And we've got heaters. We’re efficient enough to keep ourselves.”

Hernandez said he felt the increasing amounts of trash around the encampment might have been the main cause the city made efforts to clear the camp after years of existence. “I keep telling all these guys, ‘throw your garbage away.’ Some of them don't throw away their garbage. It's because of that.”

Hernandez also noted thefts at a nearby truss company had been blamed on the homeless. “It wasn't us. They're trying to blame it on us,” he said.

Whether the key reasons are related to sanitation, safety, or crime, the deadline notice was made clear.

Code Enforcement Officer Desiree Martinez said the city has made three in-person visits to the encampment, starting in June. The initial contact and count was followed by a notice of deadline in mid-December. The third visit was Dec. 30, to let everyone know it was time to clear out, and to provide options.

“We're offering them alternate means of shelter,” said Alvarez of the offer of beds at the San Benito Winter Shelter. “Mayor Ignacio Velazquez has also been down here and offered them the same thing.” Alvarez added, “At some point, we'll have public works come in. They'll be assisting with the removal of the debris and storage of the valuables. Whatever the occupants say is valuable to them we'll do an inventory with them and store it for a short period of time.”

A printed notice from the city said the city would hold items for 90 days, and the city’s code enforcement department could be contacted at 831-636-4356. Property that hasn’t been picked up after that 90-day period will be thrown away, according to the notice.

“They want us to go into a shelter, but I don't like going into a shelter and a lot of the people don't either,” said Hernandez.

When asked why shelters aren’t preferred, Lampkin said, “It's like being locked up again. They regulate what you do.” He noted that for smokers, or couples used to freedom, the regulation of a shelter is stifling.

Lampkin added, “I really don't trust shelters too much because of bad past experiences. They're really not there to help you. They say ‘hey go ahead stay the night,’ but there's all these rules and stipulations. Some of us aren't accustomed to it.”

When asked what he’s likely to do now, Hernandez said, “I’ll probably stay with a relative. I have family in town.” He went on to say, “I'll find somewhere else in the river, go further down or something. If it comes to that.”

Lampkin said, “It's real hard for me because I have a relative in town but I can't stay with her because of her living situation.” He noted he didn’t know what he was going to do. “Whatever extra money that comes from my recycling, I’ll get a room whenever I have enough for it. It's expensive out here.”

Both Lampkin and Hernandez said there was safety within an encampment filled with people, despite some of them being messy. 

Hernandez said he makes his living recycling, earning about $150 per week. “It's alright. It pays my food and all that. I don't need shelter.”

Lampkin said, “I do lightweight construction and handyman. A lot of us, we don't steal, or rob people, or go into town, or try to cause trouble. All we do is take garbage and recycle. And the skills we do know, try to do that for under the table jobs.” He noted about income, “Ours may not be steady, but we do what we can and survive out here.”

When asked why he chose to live in the encampment at Hollister’s edge, Lampkin said, “I stopped doing drugs. Now that I don't have money anymore, I'm right here. My mother's out here. I help take care of her. Someone's got to be around for my mother. I'm all she has left.”

Hernandez explained his reason is a family of seven sisters and seven brothers in the area. “We all live here. This is my home town and I'm never going to leave it.”

Rather than seek out a shelter, Lampkin and Hernandez said they preferred the other forms of help, such as local ministries offering food, clothing and showers.

“There's a lot of good people here in Hollister and they've been helping us out,” said Hernandez.

“I’m thankful that they're here,” said Lampkin, who noted the ministries that treated them like people despite not having money or houses. “They work real hard to get us what we do have.”

Another form of help came in the form of a dumpster. 

Lampkin said, “We had a dumpster here at one point in time, but other people who don't stay down here filled it up. That defeats the purpose of us putting our trash in there. So it makes it worse on us. They took it away, and now we're at another loss.”

Regarding the visit’s outcome, Alvarez said, “We’ll do a report today on what progress there is including pictures and a summary report, so they can do a good analysis and go from there. When we meet with the mayor and city manager, they'll give us direction on that.”

The removal process and timing has yet to be determined, but Alvarez said once it is, the city will proceed with the cleanup. In the meantime, the homeless in the encampment have begun to move their property and take down their shelters.

“For us this is normal,” said Lampkin. “We shouldn't be used to it, but we are.”

Sean Roney

Sean is a writer and photographer from California’s Central Coast. He began reporting for BenitoLink in 2015. Sean received his BA in communication from CSU Monterey Bay and he has covered news stories in San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Clara counties. He enjoys traveling California to meet interesting people as well as visit breathtaking places, and is always happy to sit down and share stories. In his free time, Sean enjoys cycling, bikepacking, and novel writing.