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Encampment in Ukiah to be cleared out Monday

Mama Gigi with her dog Xena Marie, "my best friend."

June 5, 2020 — People who have set up tents and lean-tos at the homeless encampment in an empty field off of Hastings Avenue in Ukiah will have to move along by Monday, when the city plans to remove personal property and mow the grass for fire mitigation purposes. 

Early in March, the Ukiah City Council designated that area part of a Runway Safety Zone that needs to be kept clear because that’s where planes are most likely to crash or dump weight if they’re struggling. At the beginning of the pandemic, the city tried to get some traction for offering housing to homeless people at the fairgrounds, in keeping with a governor’s order, signed in January, that agencies assess fairgrounds in or near jurisdictions where a shelter crisis is in effect and figure how many people could be housed there temporarily. That option was resoundingly unpopular with schools and businesses on and around the Redwood Empire Fairground in Ukiah, though there will be no fair this year and schools are closed. The plan to house homeless people at the fairground fizzled.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against breaking up homeless encampments, because this could cause at-risk people to disperse in the community. But Ukiah Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley said the plan to clear out the encampment is all about safety. “When COVID-19 hit, that was our reaction, that we need to move these people to someplace that is safer, where they can achieve social distancing and where there’s appropriate hygiene facilities...prior to that, we had already identified the risks associated with people being at this particular site,” which she says is critical to airport functions.

There have also been a lot of calls to the police. Captain Sean Kaeser with the Ukiah Police Department recalls that police first started hearing about the encampment at the end of December last year. He says that total calls for service in the city this year are down from last year, but calls about the encampment are up. Total calls citywide from January through May last year were 9,682, with 14 in the area where the encampment is now.

The idea of sanctioned camping sites comes up all the time, but Riley says the city received a quote for $500,000 to manage such a site for six months.The City of Ukiah does not receive state and federal funding for homeless programs. That money goes to the county and the homeless continuum of care, which recently completed a strategic plan to address homelessness. The Board of supervisors is scheduled to discuss that plan at two meetings next week, on June 9 and June 10.

In an effort to help people solve some of the problems contributing to their homelessness, several agencies set up an outreach event near the encampment. On Wednesday and Thursday, a public defender was on site to schedule legal assistance, animal control was vaccinating and licensing dogs, and medical staff from Adventist Health were on hand to help with minor health problems. 

Megan van Sant is a senior program manager with the county’s Health and Human Services Agency Advocacy and Collaboration Team. She was working at the outreach event to make sure people could get CalFresh and MediCal benefits. She also shared details about a new voucher program using some of the $140,000 her agency  received from the governor’s COVID-19 emergency funding to help homeless people. That program is called Busting Barriers, and it involves paying a friend or family member of a currently homeless person to put them up for a month. There’s also a transportation voucher program, to get vehicles registered or buy bus tickets for people who may be stranded in the area and just need to get back to their family somewhere else. “We want to help people get to the next place in their life, the next stage,” van Sant said. “It may be permanent housing, but if it’s something short of permanent housing and it’s some creative way to get them to another place that they would be able to restart their life, we want to try to help them do that.”

The number of people at the encampment has fluctuated since December, but on Friday afternoon, KZYX paid a visit with Ukiah City Councilman Steve Scalmanini and counted 35 tents and one RV, which Scalmanini said comes and goes. Second District Supervisor John McCowen arranged for two portable toilets and a handwashing station at the encampment, and Scalmanini restocks the supplies every week. MCAVHN provides a safe disposal for sharps. 

Our first stop after checking the paper towels and soap was a tent on the north end of the field, with matching pillows on the chairs, a potted palm tree and two dogs, Xena Marie and Cerberus, freshly vaccinated and licensed after this week’s outreach event. This is where Mama Gigi receives guests — for the next few days, anyway.

“I’ll probably give away the palm tree, though,” she said. “You would be amazed at some of the things people just leave by the dumpster.” She’s brought back a couple of pepper plants, too, and she’s trying to revive a rose; but “I don’t know about it,” she admitted, eyeing the struggling perennial.

Mama Gigi said she’s waiting for a relative to finish a program at Ford Street before she heads back to her home in Texas. When she first came to town, she said she had a Suburban, but eventually it was impounded, and she ended up on the streets. “When I got out of my vehicle, I had fifteen shades of lipstick, no knife. Now I got fifteen knives and no lipstick, because I don’t need lipstick no more, but I need a sharp knife to cut something, you know, weeds or whatever...I can fix my problems in the end...but a lot of these people, no, they don’t know what to do. They ask me the same questions every day: Gigi, what time is it? Is it time to go to Plowshares? Which way’s Plowshares? A lot of them can’t take care of theirself, and I do wonder what’s gonna happen to them after Monday.”

Eddie doesn’t know either. He led us into his tent and invited us to sit down, out of the wind. He’s from Covelo, but he’s been on and off the streets of Ukiah all his life. “I was thinking about heading for the hills, I was thinking about going to the lakes. I just don’t know. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said. Eddie is 48 years old, but he looks a lot older.  He said he’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider months ago, and he’s still walking with a crutch. The strategic plan for addressing homelessness in Mendocino County notes that homeless people often have medical problems that typically occur in people twenty years older than they are. 

Eddie wasn’t interested in the voucher from the Busting Barriers program to live with a family member. “I don’t get along with nobody in my family,” he declared. “I’ve been out here on these streets since the age of ten. Me and my family just don’t get along. That’s why I’m out here.”

Most of the people we talked to emphasized the importance of looking out for one another. One guy even gave Scalmanini some tips about diet and skin care. Another guy who saw us checking the sharps box warned us not to use dirty needles. But we also heard harrowing stories about violence and drug use and mental health problems. 

Greg Tompkins was taking a break from trying to put up a tent in the wind, which made everything harder. Eddie gave us permission to take a seat in his own tent to interview Tompkins, who said he came to the encampment because, “To me, if I can hear something new...I guess that’s part of getting another part of God’s thing of saying, hey, more pieces to the puzzle, or may your travels get longer.”

The notice posted at both ends of the encampment says that the city of Ukiah will store personal property free of charge for ninety days. And there’s a shipping container at Building Bridges where people can put some of their things come Monday, when personal belongings and their owners will have to be gone.

“As usual, some of them aren’t worried, because they don’t think they’re gonna have to go, even though I’m telling them, you’re gonna have to go,” said Mama Gigi over the sound of her tent flapping in the wind. “They keep saying, well, Mama Gigi, they told us that a hundred times before. I told them, I know, but this time, we have to go.”


Part ll, homeless encampment in Ukiah clearing out Monday.

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