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Napa Razes Homeless Camp; More Removals Planned

Inside the Bowl: a look at a south Napa homeless camp

By: Jennifer Huffman
November 14, 2020 —

On Wednesday morning, the bulldozer arrived. Workers, some wearing white plastic suits and masks, gathered debris to be scooped into the dozer’s bucket. Driving up out of the river bank, the loader then dumped the trash into a large red dumpster.

Within hours, what was formerly an extensive homeless encampment at the Trancas Street end of the Napa River Trail was no more.

Food, clothing, shoes, blankets, pillows, plastic bags, buckets, bike parts and more — into the dumpster it all went.

It’s an unfortunate end for the homeless, but this camp, along with others in Napa, have gotten out control, said Napa City Manager Steve Potter.

“Not only is trash in the waterways, but human waste and sharps are getting left behind.”

The number of complaints about such camps “is off the hook right now,” said Potter.

“It’s an unhealthy situation for the people living there,” he said. Additionally, “it was becoming hazardous for the pedestrians and cyclists” who use the River Trail, he said.

With winter coming, “we push really hard to get (the homeless) into warm and dry places” for health and safety reasons, said Potter. “We’re trying to help as many people as we can get into shelter and housing and to address the public safety issues,” he said.

During the COVID-19 emergency, residents can’t be removed from camp unless they have a safe place to go, Potter noted.

Some will go stay with family or friends, at local motels, the winter shelter or the South Napa shelter, he said.

The camp by Trancas isn’t the first to be cleaned up, and it won’t be the last. Several weeks ago, a camp between California Boulevard and Napa Creek was removed. Other camp sites, such as the “Bowl” by OLE Health and a space south of Kennedy Park, are also on the list.

A company that specializes in such cleanups has been hired for the job, said Potter. “Eviction” notices are posted in advance at such sites, he said. After the initial clean-out, the contractor returns periodically to make sure those camp sites don’t get reestablished, he noted.

On Wednesday around 8:30 a.m., only one homeless person was seen near the Trancas Street end of the River Trail area.

A woman, who declined to be interviewed, said she had just moved from the camp that was being demolished. She’d already rebuilt a home further down the trail. It included a ceiling made out of draped plastic, held up by trees and pieces of wood. Cooking pots were seen on a pad on the ground, along with a cart on wheels, a chair, large water jug, a can of food and bags of belongings.

Was she worried about her camp being demolished next? She didn’t want to say.

Crystal Ellis, 27, wasn’t evicted from the Trancas camp but said she’s been homeless on and off for about seven years. A former foster youth, she’s currently living in a tent under the Imola Avenue bridge. She’s also six weeks pregnant, said Ellis.

What does she think about the removal of homeless camps in Napa?

“Well, if they have a good cause, like maybe drugs or needles lying around or someone has a warrant,” she could understand, said Ellis. But, “If they don’t have good cause,” it’s bad, she said.

“We’re not harming anyone or ourselves,” said Ellis. “We’re minding our own business, just trying to live our own life.”

Besides, she has bigger worries, said Ellis.

For example, “A week ago, some stranger and his buddies threw giant rocks at us while we were sleeping.” Before that someone “threatened to kill us,” said Ellis. She called the police and reported the incidents.

“It’s not like I chose to be homeless,” said Ellis. “It just sort of happened. I was staying with this nice old lady (in Napa) and her son. She died in July and the house got sold, and we had to find alternatives,” she said. “I split from him. And I’ve been camping out ever since.”

Potter said re-housing the homeless is a challenge because every person’s situation is different. “They are each unique individuals,” with unique needs and situations.

“Government often tries to use a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex problem,” said Potter. “It’s a challenge to find the right answer.”

The cleanup was made possible by a combination of city, county and flood control funds. The work along California Boulevard cost $25,000, Potter said. The River Trail clean up — which will extend down the trail from Trancas to Lincoln Avenue, will cost “substantially” more, he said.

“It’s very expensive because of the materials that are being picked up and how they have to be disposed of,” Potter said.

The city and flood control district are the primary funders for cleanup efforts,” said Vin Smith, city of Napa community development director.

The city and flood control district each have budgets of $75,000 for cleanup. The flood control district has spent over $25,000 of their budget and the city has spent over $30,000, said Smith.

According to Molly Rattigan, a deputy county executive officer currently overseeing housing and homeless services, the county has budgeted $100,000 for clean-up costs around the South Napa Shelter, which includes the “Bowl.”

A date for the removal of the “Bowl” camp — located between OLE Health and the animal shelter in south Napa — has not yet been determined, said Smith.

Meanwhile, Ellis and her boyfriend James are looking for housing outside of the Bay Area and even in Oregon or as far as Illinois.

“It’s cheaper there,” Ellis said of Illinois, and her monthly disability payment will go farther. She’s not able to work, she said.

During a phone interview on Thursday, Ellis said she wasn’t worried about her camp being removed. “We keep our areas clean, and it doesn’t smell around us.”

Instead, she’s focused on her pregnancy. “This is my first, and I’m excited,” said Ellis.

Watch now: Inside the Bowl, a Napa homeless camp.

“I am talking to my midwife at OLE Health. She wants me to drink more water. I’m trying,” said Ellis. “My friend has a bunch of baby stuff that has not been used,” said Ellis. “They are boxing it up for me.”

According to Rattigan, the winter shelter at the Napa Valley Expo has approximately 44 beds. Due to COVID-19, the county opened the winter shelter this summer. It will remain open through April 15, 2021.

The facility also offers laundry services, showers and meals, Rattigan said. Clients can keep their bed until they move out of the facility.

At the South Napa Shelter on Hartle Court, there are 54 regular beds available and three for overflow needs, said Rattigan. Additionally, homeless residents with COVID-19 or exposed to COVID-19 are being housed at local motels.

Recent outreach efforts in and around the “Bowl” have resulted six residents moving indoors voluntarily, said Rattigan. An outreach team continues to work on letting clients know of available bed space, she said. “With rain coming, we expect some others to begin moving indoors,” said Rattigan.


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