As a light mist fell Thursday morning, city workers collected about 70 cubic yards of garbage and debris around Morro Creek, finding and disposing of 25 contaminated syringes, but also displacing an estimated dozen or so people who are homeless, some who said they have nowhere else to go.
The large-scale cleanup was carried out in an area around the creek long known as a temporary home for the city’s resident homeless, as well as a hangout for drug users. The cleanup came a month after two children were stuck by a hypodermic needle while playing near Morro Creek on property owned by energy company Dynegy during a youth soccer game at adjacent Lila Keiser Park.
Neither child was injured and initial tests did not show either was infected by the needle, but both will need to be retested six weeks and six months after the exposure, city officials said. The incident drew calls from the community to clean up the area, eradicate homeless encampments and clear the garbage, human waste and other items before heavy winter storms wash them into the ocean.
But the cleanup came at a steep price for Bill Holland and Stephanie Krueger, who both lived in a small makeshift encampment of tents and even a section of hardwood flooring outside the southwest corner of the Dynegy property. The living quarters were tucked away behind a few trees and normally go unnoticed by passers-by walking to the end of the Embarcadero.
But a walk into the camp reveals an enormous amount of collected trash strewn about, likely left by many people over several years, and a sickening aroma of saltwater, rotting seaweed and human feces.
As mist turned to a light drizzle, Holland and Krueger gathered and piled their most valued possessions — some clothes, a guitar, several fishing poles and two bicycles — on a corner of the nearest sidewalk as they tried to contact a friend to help them pick it up.
Asked where he was going to sleep that night, Holland shrugged and shook his head.
“There is no options. This has been a homeless encampment for years, and they’re displacing all these people,” he said. “Where do we go from here? F---, man, there ain’t nowhere to go from here.”
After a year of couch surfing, Holland said he’s camped out at that location since April. It was a simple “series of successive bad luck or bad turns” that led him to the camp, but he said he doesn’t bother anyone and stays out of nearby “Needle Creek,” where other people are known to use drugs and discard their paraphernalia.
“You have different issues out here. You have mental illness, you have drug abuse, you have this, you have that,” said Holland, standing at his pile of belongings next to Krueger. “And you have people like us that aren’t either one.”
Krueger, who said she had lived in the spot for two months, said the city does not support its homeless population and services available through the county don’t help, either.
“(You) go to SLO, leave your stuff … and if you go, what, they’re going to (give you) a bus ticket?” Krueger said. “Those aren’t resources.”
About 30 days ago, Morro Bay police Chief Amy Christey said, city staffers began posting notices in the area that any belongings found past 8 a.m. Thursday would be cleared from the area. Staffers posted more warnings 20 days out and returned with county Department of Social Services personnel 10 days out to inform the homeless residents of services available to them. Police officers stopped in the area every day for the past five days to warn people of the upcoming cleanup, Christey said.
On Thursday morning, Christey and City Manager David Buckingham led the effort by collecting any items that appeared to be valuable personal possessions and placing them in sealable bags, which were numbered and taken to the city’s corporation yard. Anyone who’s property was taken has 90 days to go to the police station to claim it.
After an area was cleared of valuables, two California Conservation Corps crews removed the remaining garbage.
Christey said many of the homeless encountered Thursday morning have legitimate barriers to using local services and, she predicted, many will simply find other places to sleep within the city.
But the cleanup was necessary, Buckingham said, because the creek serves as rain outfall into the Pacific Ocean, and expected flooding of the creek with this year’s predicted El Niño could endanger the lives of anyone living there.
“The purpose is not to roust people out of here,” Buckingham said. “It’s to clean up the creek.”
The last cleanup in the area was three years ago, Deputy City Manager Sam Taylor said. Staff costs, resources and time have made the effort cumbersome, but the city is reviewing options for annual cleanup efforts, he said. The cleanup, which will continue Friday, requires coordination with Dynegy because it owns the property where most of the camp sites were located.
After gathering the last of his belongings, Holland rolled a cigarette and paced back and forth on the sidewalk, waiting for the ride that might or might not arrive.
He said, “They really could put this much effort into helping us get on our feet.”