How many homeless encampments lie hidden in Cambria’s Monterey pine forest? It’s difficult to say, but their numbers appear to have increased lately, right in the midst of a drought that’s left the forest extremely dry and vulnerable to a catastrophic fire.
A fire that started adjacent to a sprawling encampment in Fern Canyon brought the issue of homelessness widespread attention, but it hadn’t gone unnoticed, even before then.
A couple who are part-time residents of a home in the Fern Canyon area, who asked not to be named for fear that their home would be targeted, started noticing things disappearing from their yard after they’d been away from the house: a propane tank from the grill, a candle from the front porch, some plants.
They said that, with the exception of what appeared to have been a short-lived camp far down in the canyon about a year ago, it was the first time they’d seen evidence of transients in the area.
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“It seems like in the past three to four years, the homeless camps have increased drastically,” said Carlos Mendoza, Fiscalini Ranch preserve manager for the Cambria Community Services District. “Four to five years ago, I would run into a homeless camp on a rare occasion on the Fiscalini Ranch. Now we deal with it on a monthly basis.”
He said he couldn’t cite a reason for the increase, but others have noticed it, too. Ed Tolosko, who said he’d been camping in the area for the past 17 years or so, remarked that he and one other man had been the only ones in the area until recently, when it had been “overrun” by campers.
Tolosko said he suspected there were seven camps operating south of San Simeon, but the number could be higher: A passerby near the encampment in Fern Canyon, who declined to be named, put the number at 14.
When asked about that figure, Mendoza said it was plausible.
“It would not shock me if there are 14 campsites. That sounds reasonable from what I have observed.”
Mendoza said most of the camps he’s encountered were occupied by single individuals, but some were housing as many as four people and a dog.
“As far as the areas where they are concentrated, I have seen them along the Santa Rosa Creek, underneath bridges, along Highway 1 in forest areas — anywhere they can find a hidden area, close to roads and downtown,” Mendoza said.
The fact that they’re hidden is key.
The elaborate wood-framed structure in Fern Canyon, which was dismantled last week, was nestled against a hillside and obscured by the forest. It was invisible to anyone who might approach until the very last turn in the trail.
But isn’t that the way we like our homeless: out of sight and out of mind? We’d rather have them off minding their own business than panhandling by the highway or trying to bum a couple of bucks outside the convenience store.
As long as they’re in the forest, where we don’t have to look at them, we don’t have to think about them, either. We don’t have to face a problem to which there seem to be no easy answers — just as there are no easy answers to the intractable drought that has helped create an acute fire danger in the forest.
One thing we shouldn’t do, as we look for solutions to these two related problems, is deal with them in isolation. Removing transients from their forest encampments may be necessary, but unless we find them alternatives, chances are they’ll just find another place in the forest to camp that’s as dangerous as the site they left behind.
Again, there are no easy answers. Tolosko, for instance, said he’d been fortunate enough to be offered a room at someone’s home after being evicted from his campsite. But he added that his experience in Vietnam had left him with post-traumatic stress disorder that made him wary of enclosed spaces: He described feeling better when he lived in a tent because he could easily push back the canvas and step outside.
But Cambria fire Chief Mark Miller provided some insight into the situation many homeless face when he thanked Tolosko for serving his country.
Tolosko said it was the first time in 34 years he’d heard anyone say that.
How often do we look past the homeless or choose not to notice them, for fear that they might ask us for a handout or might be “on something”?
Will the wake-up provided by the Fern Canyon fire prompt us to pay attention and look for solutions? Let’s hope so.