Officials order the area behind stores vacated and remove some underbrush
Stacie Wells says she almost lost her life during the first two weeks she spent at an encampment behind the Safeway shopping center.
"I had nowhere to go and these people took me in," Wells said. She was in essence living in a camp that suddenly "is no longer in existence."
City public works employees and an inmate crew from Alder Camp working with Cal Fire arrived with bulldozers, chain saws and mowers Monday to cut back the overgrown brush and invasive plants in and around the old McNamara and Peepe sawmill site.
They removed mattresses, box springs, cooking utensils, pallets, tarps and other debris that had been hidden among the alder trees and blackberry brambles. Workers also uncovered items that had been lifted from the nearby stores, including shopping carts and appliances, said Police Chief Doug Plack.
Police had posted notices to vacate in the wooded area near Elk Creek starting Oct. 21. Officers ventured into the campsites several times that week with Rural Human Services representatives, letting the homeless know that they would have to leave.
Police and RHS employees provided the campers with a list of social services in the community that would provide food and help with finding shelter, Plack said.
"The transients have been very cordial, very cooperative," Plack said. "The area is overgrown with hazardous debris, feces. It's an unhealthy environment."
Plack estimated that about 18 acres had been cleared. He said he didn't think the city's work pushed any campers deeper into the wooded area.
"I think we got the assistance to individuals that needed it. I'm not saying individuals won't return to the area, but we're certainly going to have to enforce the municipal code (no camping ordinance) to ensure that area stays as cleansed as we possibly can."
"What they're doing is finding alternative locations to give themselves shelter, whether it's a relative or with any of the advocates that are willing to supply services for them."
Plack estimated that about 50 people had been moved out.
City officials had been planning to clean up the area about a year ago, Plack said. Preparations included getting cooperation from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which owns much of the land, the county, whose jurisdiction at the fairgrounds borders the area, as well as various private property owners.
The Del Norte County Solid Waste Authority Board last week helped by waiving dump fees and providing Dumpsters, said City Manager Eugene Palazzo. The city had contracted with Alder Camp to clean out the area starting in May, but the early fire season put that plan on hold.
Social service agencies such as Our Daily Bread Ministries, Harrington House and RHS provided assistance to campers, Plack said. The city also worked with the Yurok Tribal Court and Elk River Rancheria, he said.
"We took them to locations, whether to a relative's house or Our Daily Bread," Plack said. "And we let them know who was serving dinners."
The flow of individuals seeking food or clothing from Our Daily Bread jumped when the work started, said Director Mike Justice. The organization offers hot meals three times a week. On Wednesday the line was out the door, he said.
"We had at least 20 extra people," Justice said. "On Wednesday night I gave out two tents and probably 10 or so bedrolls, and that's all we had."
Our Daily Bread can provide hot meals and clothing, Justice said. It also offers a free year-long drug and alcohol abuse program. From 10 to 30 people each year take advantage of that program, he said.
When Our Daily Bread ran a homeless shelter at the fairgrounds, Justice said inclement weather would bring the campers to the agency's doorstep. Many of them are still regulars on meal nights.
"I think there's close to 100 or so people out there in the camps," Justice said, speculating that some of the homeless will set up camps somewhere outside city limits. "If they get run out of there, eventually they'll probably meander their way back."
Katie Leathers, Harrington House's program director, said she and Plack contacted some of the campers when the city started cleaning up the area earlier this week. There are more men at those campsites than women, and campers have often reported disturbances in the area. Leathers said she has also heard of assaults occurring back there.
"We had heard rumors of those sorts of things happening," she said. "We spent a lot of money tracking one woman, and another advocate and I were out there talking to different people. We definitely tried to assist in the best ways we could. We went back the next day to check on her, but unfortunately she returned back to living in the trees basically the very next day."
According to a letter Wells wrote to the Triplicate (see Page A4), after being in an abusive relationship she wound up homeless and camping in the wilderness. She said she was raped and nearly killed there, but she found refuge at a compound belonging to Michael Myers.
"Michael Myers gave me a blanket, he gave me food and he gave me a place to stay," Wells said. "He built this whole campground back there where people could go and would not be afraid and could get their tummies full of food and be warm at night."
Myers had been living at his campsite for about two hears, Wells said, opening it up to people passing through. But, she said she hasn't heard from him since being told to leave the area.
"I don't know where he is right now," Wells said, "and it's so sad because he's helped so many people."
Leathers said she visited Myers' campsite and spoke with him about the woman she was trying to find. According to her, Myers said he established that camp and was "there to help everyone."
"At one of the camps I took a picture of, Michael had a huge spool and created a family-style table out of that," Leathers said. "He would seat everybody around that table."
Myers even seemed to be concerned for the workers who were dismantling his camp, Leathers said. She said she spoke with a correctional officer supervising the inmate crew removing the cans and other debris at the campsite.
"(Myers) had stopped him for safety reasons," she said. "There were feces and all sorts of stuff. It was interesting to see the human compassion no matter what your circumstances."
Plack said the city has moved forward on some ideas for putting that property to use, but added that officials would be open to any suggestions.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org.