El Niño hits home for local homeless residents

Alex Peña is one of the homeless that will need to find a new place to live, after his camp along the river was shut down by the city. Photo by Nick Lovejoy

Alex Peña said he’d been living along the banks of the dried-out San Benito River bed for about two years. That was Monday as El Niño finally hit the Hollister area to start an expected onslaught of rain over the next two months.
“They told us we were supposed to be out Monday,” Pena said, noting how he had been planning to move that day. “We were supposed to be out.”
Peña and a few other stragglers were the last remaining people at the encampment to start the week, although plenty of trash and debris remained at the site.
Hollister and San Benito County officials moved to finally clear out the growing homeless encampment along the river near Fourth Street entering the city. Prompting the direction was the general forecast calling for severe El Niño conditions and expectations for possible flooding in places like the riverbed on the west side.
The city and county co-funded a temporary expansion at the homeless facilities along Southside Road adding 40 beds for residents like those previously living along the river.
Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and others, meanwhile, don’t expect to allow homeless residents’ return to the riverbanks even after the winter rainy season. The encampment has attracted homeless residents for several years, but increased in population in the early parts of 2015 with city efforts to clean up Park Hill near downtown.
“It’s not going to be acceptable to go relocate back there again,” Velazquez said. “It’s going to be closed off permanently.”
The mayor added that the city is offering to help store belongings of encampment residents at a public facility for the winter. There was a trail of belongings, trash and debris left there Monday, though. Velazquez acknowledged those items might cause some environmental issues, being next to the river bed, once the rains intensify.
“We’re going to clean it up,” the mayor said. “We’re going to work with some of the homeless to clean it up.”
Some of the items strewn at the site Monday included such possessions as tents, a chair, a bicycle, a fake tree, tarps, empty cans, empty alcohol bottles, tires, a basketball hoop frame, mattresses, a grill and a shopping cart. There was trash throughout the area and other signs of unsanitary living. A red notice on an upright wooden board warned a resident about the mandate to leave by the start of the week.
Peña said he planned to stay with a sister locally. He said some others went to the homeless shelter facilities.
Still, particularly with strict requirements barring substances in those facilities, a portion of residents could be left in the cold and rain, the mayor acknowledged. He said some of the encampment residents had started to head over to the shelter.
“People are heading over there,” Velazquez said. “Not everyone’s going to go. More are starting to use it. It’s one of the steps in a long process.”
Added the mayor: “Living on the river is not an answer, and prolonging that is not an answer.”
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