By the morning of Jan.16, some 60 or so homeless people had run out of time. As Hollister police and fire officials monitored the process, heavy trucks, bulldozers and excavators rumbled along the north side of Vista Park Hill between North Street and the railroad tracks leading out of town. They were there to clear out the makeshift campsites that were the homes of many older homeless. By the permanence of some of the campsites, it was apparent that many of these people had lived there for a number of years.
The enforced eviction was being carried out by the land’s new owners, De Nova Homes, which is moving forward with its 81-acre, medium-density Allendale development that the city council approved May 2017. The homeless were given 14-days notice according to the fire marshal to clear out and no trespassing signs had been placed at the campsites five days earlier. An estimated seven of 12 campsites had already moved to the other side of the tracks by the time the trucks arrived.
Those who had moved sat and watched in silence as the heavy equipment tore away at the campsites left high up on the hillside. But not all of them were about to go away quietly.
Jennifer Coulter has been homeless for more than eight years. She was included in a New York Times article “Meet the People Facing Trump’s Budget Cuts,” that told of her having worked as a home health aide and says she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after being raped at 18.
Coulter considers herself an advocate for her fellow homeless in San Benito County and has appeared at a number of supervisor meetings to plead their case. From her perspective, the uprooting of her friends, whom she refers to as her family, was sudden and unprecedented.
“They kept saying ‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,’ and by the time they got here we had about 20 minutes,” she was saying as Patricia Arbollo, who Coulter said has been on the streets for 25 years, was standing by holding an American flag and screamed between obscenities, “They had lots of notice to get the f*** off…”
Coulter, 48, who was calm and collected compared to Arbollo, who appeared disturbed. “That’s not the point,” Coulter started to say, but Arbollo blurted over her, “The point is they’ve been planning this for f***ing years.”
The two women could be said to represent two sides of the homeless situation in the county. Coulter tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy and hopes to one day escape her situation; and Arbollo’s erratic behavior personifies the homeless Hollister residents have openly asked the city council to do something about, though no one seems to know exactly what that looks like.
“There are 517 supposed homeless here,” Coulter said. “Where are we supposed to go?”
Arbollo would chime in from a few feet away poignant remarks related to points that Coulter was trying to make about where they could go. “The f***ing shelter, maaaan, they just opened that thing,” Arbollo shouted as she waved her flag.
Coulter pointed to a man standing aimlessly between the railroad tracks. “He’s got some mental issues and he’s not allowed to go to the shelter because he doesn’t get along with certain people,” she explained. “Everyone has issues. Everything that we had is gone now. We don’t have any place to go. Now we have 68 people displaced. My concerns are what happens now?”
She said she understands property rights, but feels the situation was not handled correctly. She was concerned about those who could not move easily. In particular, she was worried about Jessie, a man who lives in one of the more well-established campsites. She said he is ill and has no family in the area.
Later, at Jessie’s campsite, a woman, who gave only her first name, Patty, preferred not to give her last name because her son owns a local business.
Jessie was there loading some of his belongings into Patty’s pickup. Jessie, a middle-aged, soft-spoken man appeared neat and well groomed, but dazed about what was about to happen to him. He said he was recovering from a heart attack and had several broken ribs. He said he was at the hospital when the no trespassing sign was placed in the middle of his campsite. He had just returned as an excavator began tearing down his neighbor’s camp. It was clear that he would not be able to take much with him before the excavator made its way to his site.
Coulter described what was taking place as “re-victimization,” and thought people should receive some kind of compensation for their belongings.
“We’re all good people and I can’t understand how they can take that property away without us having some place to go,” she said. “People can die out here without shelter or blankets. We’re all family for each other. You think we’re so tough and want to take advantage of things. We do everything we can to take care of each other. We start at four in the morning with recycling and we get a little money together for food.”
Jessie and Coulter tried to grasp what was happening to them. They were dismayed as they explained that the former landowner, John Brigantino, had given them permission to stay and even provided dumpsters so they could keep their campsites clean.
“To me, they gave them permission, so they have to go through an eviction process,” said Patty. “I don’t know what the laws are, but they should have at least had 30 days.”
Patty did not know how close to the truth she was. City Attorney Soren Diaz said there is a distinction between trespassers and squatters. He explained that in a trespass situation involving private property, owners normally contact the police, who can remove the people. In other situations, property owners can hire help to remove the trespassers, which is what happened in this instance.
“Under common law the landlord can remove them, using no more force than is necessary,” Diaz said. “It’s illegal to trespass, so it’s basically the eviction of trespassers under common law.”
When informed that John Brigantino had given them permission to stay on the land because the homeless shelter had not opened yet, which was confirmed by Carlos Bedolla, Hollister Fire Marshal and Code Enforcement, Diaz said the people could possibly have fought the eviction under the squatters’ rights laws, which are not granted to trespassers. In California, state law addresses the issue of squatters, and Diaz explained that in some cases their rights cannot be easily abridged.
“There are oral representations and if that’s the case they wouldn’t be trespassers, if they had consent,” he said. “That creates a different legal analysis. It can be tricky. It’s one person’s word against another as to whether they were allowed to be on the premises or not. Squatters may have a right to make a claim against the property owner. That would be a civil matter.”
As Coulter was trying to comfort a woman known only as Jeana, whose campsite was being torn down, they walked across the open ground between where her home once stood and the tracks. Jeana, who Coulter described as a hard worker who simply could not afford to rent in Hollister, pulled a small shopping basket behind her that contained all she had left of her possessions.
Coulter didn’t know where Jeana or any of the others would end up. A few remained near the tracks and others had relocated to the empty lot across from the new Marriott Hotel. She said they could not go to the shelter because it could only accommodate 50 people and was full. In this instance, she was wrong.
Jim Rydingsword, director of the Health and Human Services Agency, said since it opened, the shelter has never been filled to capacity. He said on the evening of Jan. 16, when they were removed from the site, there were only 26 people staying overnight at the shelter, as has been the case most nights, and added that, as far as he could determine, only two people from the hillside had shown up that night.