May 2 Marsh Exile
By Shanna ‘Blu’ Carlile Roy
May 2, 2016 was a highly anticipated and high stakes day. A force of dozens of police, heavy equipment and city workers swept through the Palco Marsh. A handful of journalists, designated observers and social workers were allowed past the police guarded barricades. When I arrived I learned that our other Humboldt Edge reporter and Board member, Nezzie Wade had been kicked out by the police and her press credentials disregarded. Nezzie is an outspoken homeless advocate and the President of AHHA (Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives) and chair of the Humboldt Human Rights Commission. Another reporter from Greenfuse was turned away as well. I was lucky to make it into the scene. My heart sank when I did. It looked like a warzone. The Coast Guard helicopter circled the area repeatedly. Smoke billowed from fires reeking of trash. Weary and stunned residents, many with no safe place to live carried their belongings in trash bags, on bicycles and make shift carts trying to take as much as they could in one load. They would not be allowed to come back. The temporary emergency container housing being offered to 40 people, without children, filled up quickly and was not enough to accommodate over 130 remaining residents of the marsh. The parking lot at the Department of Health and Human Services allows overnight camping from 8pm-7am but is not available during the day. Thirty overflow shelter beds for men were added at the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall on an emergency basis, without accommodation for couples or dogs. All of these options expire in 60 days when the 6-month emergency shelter declaration ends.
By 9AM all but a handful of houseless had been kicked out. They poured onto the streets with carts and bags, dogs trailing behind. They were burdened and broke, looking lost and violated. Their homes had been taken by force. Their belongings bulldozed into piles and scooped into dumpsters. For many residents of the marsh it had become the closest thing to a stable home and family that they had ever known. “We’re family. We pull together and help each other out. Everybody’s gone. Where are we going to go now? What are we going to do now? We’re one out here.” Mama D was one of the last residents to leave. She was one of the eleven plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the city. The judge ruled in favor of a restraining order against the police but did not include the rest of the marsh residents. She was trying to make her breakfast in the chaos. As we spoke city workers came and collected more of her things to take to the Betty Chinn container compound. Mama D told me that the plaintiffs were given priority in placement. “I’m severely depressed. I feel like I’m in prison or jail. I’m not used to being in closed in areas now. I’ve been out here three years but I’ve been on the streets for ten years. Every time I turn around I feel more lost, being uprooted again.” Mama D has suffered abuse her entire life. “Being stripped of my home and my children was the hardest thing. I just got over that. Now I’m being stripped of here, where I feel safe.” Stacy, another resident and plaintiff with anxiety and mental illness paced anxiously clearly distressed by the situation. She was offered a place at the container village but did not want to go. Brandi Wilson, a member of Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction tried to help and calm her.
Down the trail I met a young woman named Tricia. She struggled to load her things onto a dilapidated bicycle cart. There was three times as much stuff as the cart could carry and two dogs as well. The dogs had been licensed and vaccinated. Tricia was pregnant. Her fiancé had an asthma attack and left the marsh to find water. The police would not allow him back in to help her. She had no idea where they were going to go. Later I ran into some people from the St. Joseph’s outreach clinic and pointed them to Tricia. They helped her transport her things out of the area.
When I went back down the trail I learned that the police forced Brandi out of the area. Stacy’s anxiety was growing. The police told Stacy that the residents would have until 5pm to remove their belongings and leave. She had to shout to be heard over the noise of the helicopter, heavy equipment and cars. “The only place they’ve offered is the mission, which is Christian based. I’m pagan. I’m not going to go there. Or rehab. I don’t need rehab. I’m 43 years old. I don’t need to be told to go to bed at ten, get up at seven and do your chores. I don’t need that. I’m mentally fucking ill and I need my support system and they just made my fucking support system leave.” She called her lawyer’s office in desperation. I tried to hang around to make sure she would be all right. I felt some relief when she went and joined Mama D and a few others at their camp. The feeling of helplessness, desperation and sadness was heartbreaking.
Another pregnant woman stood by her makeshift cabin while the police took inventory of her things and she went through the rest to take with her. “Everybody’s got to be somewhere. I’ve been homeless off and on for 15 years. Right now I’m staying at the motel right up the road but I’m working on trying to get either a place or permanent housing, so I’m in the works. I’m not planning on trying to be outside anymore but I’m not guaranteeing that it’s not going to happen because it’s really hard to keep permanent housing.”
At a press conference held in the overflow parking lot of the Bayshore Mall the police department said, “Camping in an area without water, sewer, electricity, is just not a good option. The City of Eureka along with the Department of Health and Human Services has housed over 100 people. I think that’s an incredible number for a city this size.”
The houseless population in Humboldt County is estimated to be about 1,500. Many of the people that I spoke with that lived in the marsh had been directed to go there by the police during ‘Operation Cleansweep’. This was an effort last year to clear all of the homeless camps from other areas of the city. Many were told that the only place that they would be allowed to camp in Eureka was in the marsh. No services or utilities were provided except occasionally a portable toilet or dumpster. Mayor Jager previously said that he did not want the homeless to be disbursed throughout the city but with the Palco Marsh exodus that is exactly what happened.
Later that day we saw Mama D pulling a wagon while carrying a load of her things. She was sweaty and winded with another half-mile walk to the container camp. We stopped and helped her haul her things in our car. If not for that temporary housing she would not know where to go. As for the rest of the homeless, it is illegal to sleep in Eureka. The police can confiscate their belongings if it is placed on the ground. The current lack of permanent housing or a sanctuary camp has left the houseless wandering the streets being harassed and arrested for doing nothing more than trying to survive.
- As about 100 house-less individuals were evicted, several homeless advocates were watching the operation unfold from the sidelines. The Eureka Police Department did not allow them to enter the marsh.
The advocates said they were worried about the future for those who were living in the marsh.
Debra Carey, a homeless advocate, said she did not believe kicking people out of the marsh was a viable solution.
“Today is a tragedy,” she said. “When you send a lot of people out of the street and you're only looking at temporary solutions and not looking at real solutions.”
Carey felt the residents had been able to develop of sense of community at the marsh and the operation was destroying it.
“We've just scattered a community,” she said. “People that support each other and the services that support them are now not going to be able to find them.”
Nezzie Wade, another homeless advocate said, she was concerned about where many of the house-less were going to go and was afraid they could become targets if they were wandering around the city.
“Anything that happens, anything at all that happens, they're going to be blamed for it, regardless of whether they had anything to do with it or not,” Wade said.
Advocates weren’t the only ones showing support for the marsh residents. A traveling group of volunteers, The Vagabus, drove from Garberville to Eureka to stand in solidarity with the house-less. Its members said they sympathized with the residents as many of them had been in their shoes at one point in their lives.
“Most of the people on this bus, we were all homeless,” Steven Boutwell, a member of the Vagabus, said. “I think there are 11 members, 9 of us were homeless, and so we've been in these people's shoes.”
The eviction operation will continue on Tuesday.