The city of Grover Beach is expected to break up a large homeless encampment next week, and although city representatives say they have reached out to help connect those people with housing and services, many say they don’t know where they’ll go once evicted.
“They aren’t doing anything — nothing to help us,” said Genieva Upton-Young, 42, who has lived in the camp south of the Amtrak train station for several years, along with her husband, four dogs and two hamsters. “Where are we going to go? Nobody will tell us where we are supposed to go.”
The property has long been home to dozens of transients in the South County, where homeless resources such as shelters or day centers are scarce.
Portions of the camp are visible from Highway 1, with sheets, tents, clothes and other items strewn throughout the trees; overflowing trash bags sit along the road, acting as entrance markers. About 20 people live in the camp.
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Other homeless encampments exist throughout the city, including a large camp near the Meadow Creek Trail.
“There’s a huge health risk down there,” Grover Beach police Chief John Peters said of the train station camp Monday. “It’s just not a safe place for anyone to be living, especially with the proximity to the train tracks.”
The city is taking steps to clear out the property before the station adds a bus drop-off area and updates the existing train depot with more parking and a new entrance.
Grover Beach is in talks with San Luis Obispo County and Union Pacific Railroad to lease the property, and is expected to reach an agreement by February, according to a city staff report. All together, the project is expected to cost approximately $2 million.
This is our safe spot. This is what we are used to.
In the meantime, the train station camp has to be cleared out before environmental studies or construction can begin.
Grover Beach took its first steps toward clearing out the camp in September. After several weeks of outreach with local homeless resource agencies, the Grover Beach Police Department posted “No Trespassing” signs along the property and issued more than a dozen trespassing citations to people living there. The residents also were warned that they could be arrested if they did not leave the camp.
Since then, many of the people have returned to set up tents or makeshift shelters.
A second wave of enforcement was planned for the first week of January, and then Wednesday, but because of rain it has been rescheduled for Jan. 26 or Jan. 27, Peters said.
Then, the police department and representatives of local homeless service agencies will go to the camp and help anyone still there pack up their belongings and relocate elsewhere, he said. The next day, crews will remove trash and waste and begin cleaning up the area in preparation for it to be fenced off.
Any valuables left behind will be stored by the police department and must be claimed within 90 days.
Peters said the people living in the camp have been notified that they can no longer stay there, and that representatives of local homeless service providers and mental health agencies have passed out pamphlets and information on what services are available to help residents secure housing.
Peters said it is up to each of the camp residents to find a new place to live.
“Some of them will be in the same situation they are in now — but they just can’t stay there,” he said. “We’ll try to help them as far as we can.”
Upton-Young said people like herself and her husband — both of whom have mental health issues and disabilities that make it difficult to hold down a job — need more time and help to find temporary housing before the camp is closed.
“I’m trying to find housing, trying to get into a place, so we can be a family again,” she said, noting that the couple’s 10-year-old daughter no longer lives with them. “It’s hard, because we just don’t make enough money. What are we supposed to do? I hope I find something soon. I’m going crazy trying.”
A man living in the camp who declined to give his name said Monday that he also didn’t know what would happen once the camp is closed, or where he would go.
“I just want people to know that being homeless isn’t a crime,” he said. “I’m not any different of a person now than I was before, when I had a house. I’m still me; I’m still that guy who would run and help you when you needed it. That’s who I was.”
158 Number of homeless people in Grover Beach during a 24-hour period in January, according to the 2015 Homeless Point in Time Census and Survey.
Brandon Michael Williams, who was huddling on a bench at the train station waiting for the rain to pass Monday morning, said he sometimes stays at the camp next to the train station — although now that the weather is colder and wetter, he stays at the train station, sleeping on the same bench.
“I’ve been down there once in a while, but it’s mostly just a bunch of mean old men,” Williams said. “I’m just trying to stay well and dry, and sleep as much as I can.” He said he would likely continue staying at the train station until the weather gets better or the police ask him to leave.
Local homeless advocate Dee Torres-Hill, who works as a volunteer for the nonprofit SLO Housing Connection, said she has been working closely with those living in the camp, including Upton-Young, to try to secure temporary housing for them before the camp is shut down.
“I’m running up against a brick wall trying to help everyone,” she said. “It just baffles me. This is the only group that we make decisions about without consulting people that are actually in that group. We really need to be talking with them to figure out what they need the most, not what we think they need.”
Torres-Hill said she plans to speak at the Grover Beach City Council meeting Tuesday night. She is trying to get several of the camp’s residents to show up and ask for more time and help finding temporary housing solutions, although that is difficult because many of them are unwilling to leave their belongings or pets unattended at night.
Torres-Hill said she wants to push for more conversation about “creative solutions” for how to help the area’s homeless.
“Other places are coming up with some really creative solutions,” she said, noting that San Francisco has buses outfitted with showers and toilets specifically for the city’s homeless population to use. “I’m not asking for us to re-create the wheel here. We just aren’t even having the conversations right now.”