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Two cities exist in Redding.
You know about the first one. It has streets and traffic and stores and parks and hospitals and schools and churches and a library. This first Redding is just a little slice of California, USA, where citizens work hard and play hard. They pay bills and struggle and succeed and raise families and exercise and volunteer and watch TV and enjoy the great outdoors.
Then there’s the other Redding – the second one. It’s the focus of a series here on anewscafe.com in the following days about homeless encampments within the city limits.
Redding’s second city – the one made up of homeless encampments – is primarily hidden, though keen-eyed observers might glimpse portions of these places as they cross one of Redding’s bridges or drive along Miracle Mile, or walk, hike or bike the city’s trails, greenbelts and open spaces.
People who live here are the unsheltered homeless, many of whom suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Some of the encampment residents are registered sex offenders, or parolees. Primarily, this population is male, but some women live here, too, all in the great outdoors.
Other days in this series we will explore the various facts and viewpoints regarding the homeless who live in these encampments. We can address exactly who they are, why they’re homeless, and the solutions to best help them.
But today, in Part 1, we look at the encampments, and efforts by the Redding Police Deparment, mainly under the direction of Officer Bob Brannon, to tackle the gargantuan task of cleaning up the encampments, and disposing of the literally tons of trash they generate each year.
Some of Redding’s most notable homeless encampments are located on both public and private properties. And, by the way, it’s illegal to camp anywhere within Redding city limits.
To law enforcement and others who clean up the encampments, or work with the unsheltered homeless, some of Redding’s most renowned homeless camp sites are found beneath the Cypress Street Bridge, and in the newly developed Henderson Open Space, and near the old Hatch Cover Restaurant, and deep down in the ravine behind the strip mall across the street from the Shopko Center.
That steep area off Lake Boulevard behind the Masonic Lodge is where anewscafe.com photographer Kat Domke and I recently met with a trio of Redding Police Department officers, Dean Adams, Linda Gisske and Bob Brannon. The officers were joined by four Shasta County Jail trustees assigned to help clear out homeless encampments that had been red-tagged earlier as unlawful encampments.
Our journey began about 8 a.m. on a chilly, clear day. We walked beyond the treeline, just south-west of the shopping center. At the entrance to this area was a pile of rocks with a skinny wooden cross stuck in the center. At the grave’s base were plastic flowers and a commuter coffee cup and tiny toys. One officer explained that site was where a homeless woman was found dead last year, with an empty liquor bottle near her body.
As we headed into the brush, a few people suddenly appeared, and fanned out from different points, almost ghost-like, away from the officers. Some of them carried bulging plastic trash bags. Others toted over-stuffed backpacks. Yet others dragged rolling suitcases behind them that bumped along in the dirt. One auburn-haired woman emerged from the wooded area carrying a white shopping bag, while a black dog walked beside her. The woman, whose hair was neat and clothes appeared clean, nodded in the officers’ direction, but didn’t say a word.
The officers didn’t arrest her, or, for that matter, any of the other the illegal campers we encountered that day, even the man who, hours later, yelled at the police when they reminded him that his time was up, that he had agreed to leave before that day.
“Hey! This is America!,” he said. “This is bullshit!!”
The police and their crew continued to clean up the surrounding area as the man packed and made a cell phone call for someone to pick him up.
The police officers said there’s little point in arresting the illegal campers. The jail lacks the personnel to handle more inmates, so the campers would be quickly released.
Photos by Kat Domke
We walked steadily downhill, and along the way the officers stopped every so often to investigate camps that had reached their vacate deadline. The officers worked with the trustees and directed them to start putting things that were left behind on tarps and in wheelbarrows for the return trip to the waiting RPD trailer. It seemed that the farther from Lake Boulevard we hiked, the greater the evidence of garbage and tents.
Finally, toward the bottom of the ravine, we stopped at a massive encampment that looked like it had 0nce held many people. The incredible quantity of scattered debris was reminiscent of what one might see in the aftermath of a hurricane. The sheer magnitude of the encampment’s mass of various stuff completely blew away any stereotypical images of Depression-era, knapsack-carrying “hobos” with bedrolls, a harmonica and a small campfire.
The reality was staggering, especially considering the obviously great distance and effort people had gone to transport such a motley, weighty collection of objects so far down that ravine. But the people who dumped the stuff there were now long gone.
This site was well-rooted, well-stocked, and encompassed an area in which a few small homes could have fit.
All around and in between the tents and wooden pallets were piles of clothing, mounds of broken electronics, warped wooden tables, tangles of bicycles, wire, upturned couches, lop-sided futons, a three-legged easy chair, busted resin patio furniture, green camp stoves, rusted barbecues, ripped moldy mattresses, fractured shopping carts, cardboard signs with a variety of messages, empty prescription bottles, dirty water jugs camp fire pits and oil-smeared fast-food papers. There were many blankets. And many tents, some of which looked brand new.
Not far from this area, closer to Miracle Mile, was an encampment officers referred to as “the condo” for its massive size, and multiple “rooms” snugly situated on a whale-sized, tarp-covered plot.
This particular day, said the officers, was typical of what they often find in homeless encampments.
Wood-pallet foundations are common, some of which can equal the square footage of a modest apartment. Downed trees and piles of brittle manzanita and other brush frequently form a barricade, both visually and physically, sometimes as a protection from other homeless campers.
Some of the more elaborate sites have make-shift bathrooms, often with soiled 10-gallon buckets wedged beneath off-balance toilet seats.
Meanwhile, nearby are strewn underwear, used toilet paper and empty buckets with dark-colored splattered interiors.
Yet other less-sophisticated homeless camps are sometimes literally dotted with “shit holes” that range in diameter from softball- to basketball-sized.
However, there are the glaring exceptions; small encampments that are military-tidy, with just few items, such as a tent, clothes and sleeping bag.
Either way, whether the camps are big or small, they all take time. Brannon says that he takes great care to follow consistent steps before removing items from a camp site. His first step is to leave an RPD red tag on the camp site that says in bold letters, “THIS IS AN UNLAWFUL ENCAMPMENT. IMMEDIATELY REMOVE ALL ITEMS.”
The red card includes that day’s date, and the deadline by which the campers must vacate the property, and warns that all items will be removed if they are still there on that deadline date. Brannon writes case numbers on tents, photographs each encampment and records that information.
When the day arrives to clean up the camps, he and his crew pile all the abandoned items, including the trash, onto giant tarps. Those tarps are either disposed of, or left for the land-owner to haul away. Any personal items, such as wallets or private papers, the officers save and mark with the encampment information. A note is left behind saying that the owner can retrieve the items from the RPD.
While some homeless advocates have protested the disposal of homeless campers’ possessions, Brannon said that it’s impossible to collect and save everything that’s left behind.
“I was once told that a turd-infested blanket was important to someone,” Brannon said. “The fact is we just can’t keep everything.”
Photos by Redding Police Department
Document, document, document
Regarding the amount of time Brannon spends at the encampments, he said it varies. For example, during the first three weeks of January Brannon spent nine days working on camps, both tagging and cleaning. In December he spent just two days on camp duty. His detailed logs containg case numbers, dates and before-and-after inventories.
The following log page is typical for just one location:
Case No 11-40765:
Dec. 5, 2011, under Cypress Street Bridge, posting five tents.
Dec. 15, 2011, under Cypress Street Bridge, re-inspection, cleanup tents, gone on arrival, 900 pounds (hauled away materials).
Dec. 19, 2011, under Cypress Street Bridge, returned to remove graffiti, found three new beds.
So it went down the page, from December 5, 2011, through January 9, 2012. for case numbers 12-00638, 12-01862, 12-01889, 12-01864 and 12-00638. Recorded within those cases were descriptions of bleach bottles, tarp-draped trees, discarded clothing, riverbank trash, tents, a sofa and even a kitchen.
The cases during that time period referred to encampments beneath the Cypress Street Bridge, along Henderson Open Space, down the hill behind the Masonic Lodge and near the old Highway 99 road off Miracle Mile.
Public complaints drive citations
It’s not as if the police make a full-time job of tracking down homeless encampments to tag and remove. But rather, Brannon said that RPD’s encampment posting and clearing is complaint-based. Complaints initiate a process that’s become quite familiar to Brannon and his team.
“I will post and do follow-up until completed,” Brannon said. “Sometimes I discover additional camps upon re-inspection, and they (newly discovered camps) start the process over.”
He acknowledges his job is like the cleaning job from hell that lasts for eternity. He cleans up homeless encampment sites, then he later returns and cleans it up again. And again. And again.
This has gone on for years, usually in the same places. But just as often RPD receives calls about homeless camping in new places, such as behind bushes, in parking lot’s planter islands, under window sills and along office building walls.
Brannon is often asked what motivates him to continue such a seemingly never-ending task. He has two answers.
” ‘A’ it’s my job, and ‘B’ I would like to keep Redding the beautiful city that it is – to keep it a safe and healthy environment,” he said.
“This is a huge health issue, because without the cleanup of trash, the areas would not be able to recover from this abuse.”
So why not leave the campers alone, as some homeless advocates suggest? A couple of reasons. For one thing, officers say that encampments left unchecked for long periods of time tend to increase in population as word spreads among the homeless about that available location.
With a swelling encampment population comes increased environmental damage and potential public health risk from greater amounts of human waste, often near sensitive waterways and seasonal flood plains. Other negative side effects are dog fights (many homeless keep dogs for protection) and homeless-on-homeless violence and sexual assault, as well as increased risk of fire from dried trees and branches cut and propped as camouflage.
Also, because Redding’s encampments tend to be near such city amenities as fast-food restaurants, retail stores, recycling centers and grocery stores, homeless camp residents often become fixtures in nearby residential areas and businesses. The result is that some businesses, like various fast-food restaurants along Lake Boulevard, find themselves with an influx of panhandlers. Public restrooms become defacto shower stalls. Tables and chairs become all-day hang-outs.
Customers protest. Business suffers. Someone calls the RPD and registers a complaint.
However, while not all calls to the RPD about “vagrants” or “transients” are necessarily related to unsheltered homeless, many are. (Click here to see the list of calls to RPD in 2011 in which the complaint involved a vagrant or transient.)
According to the RPD officers, because their department has fewer officers than in years past, many calls aren’t responded to. It’s a matter of priorities, and a major crime elsewhere in the city may trump a petty crime committed by a homeless person.
“There was a time, when we had more officers, that we could be more proactive,” RPD Officer Gisske said as she pulled on blue plastic gloves before picking up trash. “In those days, we could stop and check on something that seemed suspicious, maybe talk to a person and see what their situation was, maybe even before they became homeless. Now, we’re mainly reactive.”
Regarding the subject of homeless who live in the encampments, Gisske said that it’s an abstract concept for most people to comprehend, because they’re looking at it from their functional perspectives. She said if the average citizen were to lose their home, family and friends would be there to lend a bed until the person was in a stable financial situation again. In the case of many homeless, Gisske said that some of the people have they’ve burned family-and-friend bridges or exhibited behaviors or/and addictions that would make unwelcome house guests.
She added that that a fair number of the homeless that she and her fellow officers encounter in the encampments have serious substance abuse issues, and that it’s not unusual for them to spend what little money they do have – such as SSI income – on drugs or alcohol, rather than housing. She said that a pattern of calls for police service bear out this observation.
“We see a lot of drunk in public calls (about homeless) around the first of the month, when people get paid,” she said. “Then the second half of the month we start seeing thefts and other crimes, when the money’s run out.”
Even so, the Redding Police Department receives calls all month long related to “vagrants”. (Click here to see the list from 2011.)
Officer Adams talked as he stepped around a gaping divot in the dirt and warned others they’d best watch out for it, he sad that although his front-line exposure to the homeless encampments haven’t made him jaded, they have caused him to believe that part of the answer to homelessness lies in those people taking more of a responsibility for their life choices.
“We see this stuff day in and day out,” he said. “It can get to you sometimes.”
Officer Gisske agreed, and she’s sympathetic, especially to the mentally ill homeless, and those who’ve lost jobs and homes or have had some personal crisis. On the other hand, she said that many social and welfare services exist in Redding to assist myriad problems, and some homeless choose to not accept or seek help.
“A lot of these people could go to the Mission, but they don’t want to, so they choose to live outside,” Gisske said as she stooped to look at a bicycle, surrounded by garbage.
“I feel torn. I know people fall on hard times. But look at this … this isn’t right, either.”
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.