It’s quiet. Despite its reputation as a chaotic place, the PalCo Marsh, also known as the Devil’s Playground, often is. A few dogs, tied in front of tents, bark. The motor of a fishing boat on the bay can be heard just out of sight behind the trees. Eureka City Councilmember Kim Bergel walks with a member of the Mobile Intervention and Services Team, going tent to tent to check in and see if people are willing to talk about services. She is wearing a pair of tall rubber boots. It is Friday, the day several service providers set up tents and tables in the north parking lot of the Bayshore Mall. Some people visit the fair, taking advantage of the free food and water and talking to providers. But many others still stay in their camps or leave the area entirely, wary of the increased presence of interlopers. Their time of refuge may be coming to an end. This is the last Friday before the city of Eureka plans to clear out the homeless camp – and its estimated more than 100 residents – for good.
“Things seem to be going pretty well,” says Bergel. “We’ll at least get as many people out peacefully as we can.”
Bergel visits the area often, checking in with residents, petting pitbulls and spreading the word about the upcoming eviction date. People have been increasingly responsive to the idea of the shipping container village, she says, and are signing up with Betty Chinn.
She is doubling back to the parking lot when she decides to check in on Manny, an older man with diabetes and mobility problems. He was sick the day before. Although Manny can walk, he must use his wheelchair to get far, and relies on his friends and neighbors in the marsh to help him with some tasks like getting dressed and finding food. He is waiting on the Veteran’s Administration to help him get an apartment, but this solution is at least a week away. In the meantime, he and a friend might stay in a motel, or in the shipping container set up.
In this place, etiquette demands a shout to announce your arrival, and just outside the entrance to the camp, Bergel does so. Receiving no response, she moves closer.
“Manny, are you in there?”
From within the tent, there’s the sound of a muffled whimper.
“Manny? Are you sick? Do you need help?”
His voice is muffled, unintelligible, pained. Bergel unzips the flap and goes inside.
“Manny? Manny? Wake up. Wake up Manny!” There is the sound of rustling as Bergel shakes him, then the sound of a slap.
She reappears outside the tent.
“I need some help,” Bergel says.
Inside, Manny has gone unconscious, his eyes twisted back in his head. His thin legs are covered only with a blanket. A bowl with macaroni and cheese and hotdogs, cooked on a nearby hotplate, sits on the floor.
Fresh vomit has spilled over his lap. Bergel kneels next to him on the dirty mattress, holding his chin and asking him to wake up.
“We need an ambulance,” she says as she dials 911. Soon the tent is full of people from the camp next door.
“He’s hypoglycemic,” says one person. A woman who kneels on his other side, slaps him and tells him to open his eyes. “Manny, the ambulance is coming, the cops are coming, so you have to wake up, do you understand?”
Manny whimpers again.
Another man, skinny, with a neck tattoo and a large hunting knife on the back of his belt, yells at Bergel for calling the police. He tells Bergel that Manny has taken heroin to help with his diabetes, and he’s just nodding, and that he doesn’t need the ambulance, and that the treatment will waste the $20 high Manny paid for.
Bergel tells the man that Manny has given his permission and needs to go to the hospital. In the distance, the whine of a fire engine’s siren can be heard.
“Well we’re going to have to take him out there then, because they don’t come back here,” says the man.
“They’ll come back,” Bergel replies through gritted teeth.
When the paramedics and police arrive, the neighbors disperse. The responders say Manny’s name and thump his chest. He is more responsive now, reaching urgently for Bergel’s hand and whimpering, “No heroin, no heroin.”
“No heroin,” she says. “But your friends say you did take some.”
“No heroin, sick,” he says, a note of panic in his voice.
The EMTs put him on a stretcher and carry him out of the tent, over the puddles and garbage, 10 to 15 yards to the parking lot. Bergel and the MIST worker follow and, once the police have gone, the man with the knife follows her.
“You’d better fucking make sure he has a ride back,” he says.
“He does, I gave them my card,” she tells him.
“They can send the bill to the fucking city councilor’s office,” he says, and continues to shout at her back as she walks away. “This happens all the time, every day. Nobody calls the ambulance. We don’t need an ambulance. You people are here for five minutes and you think you know everything. Fuck you.”
Bergel turns around.
“You know what?” she says. “You can back off.”
The two exchange remarks for a few tense seconds, then finally they turn and go their respective ways, him back to his tent and her back to the parking lot. The fire truck has pulled away. Manny is in the ambulance, which drives away.
“What happened?” asks a woman with a plate full of food, and someone tells her.
“Oh no,” she says, hurrying back to her camp.
Back out behind the trees, the swears and shouts of Manny’s neighbor can be heard.
Bergel walks over to a cluster of people in the parking lot, and they lean in and listen. One puts her arm around her. After a few minutes, Bergel gets in her car and drives to the hospital.
As of 5 p.m. on Friday, Manny had left the hospital and returned to his tent in the marsh.