Smoke and dust filled the air, a helicopter circled overhead and the crunch and crash of heavy equipment disrupted a serene morning on the edge of Humboldt Bay as Eureka Police and work crews razed the homeless encampment behind the Bayshore Mall.
The scene was, perhaps, a long time coming. The area known as the Devil's Playground has been a camping site for at least a decade, time enough for it to swell to a population of 300 at one point and become a community of sorts, with its own culture and rules.
It was also reminiscent of the South Spit in the 1990s, when hundreds of homeless people, including families, were rousted from a makeshift community by a county health order. At the PalCo Marsh, Eureka police took a relatively hands-off approach until last year, when a lawsuit made the city hyper-aware of liability concerns surrounding the old concrete structures littering the property and the encampments that surrounded them. With a new sense of urgency, plans to address homelessness began to formulate.
There was plenty of time for the people camping in the PalCo Marsh to find another place to live, Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills told reporters at a press conference the morning of the eviction. In the last 30 days, he said, officers and city workers visited the camp nearly daily to tell campers they faced arrest if they didn't leave by May 2.
That warning went unheeded by some. At 8 a.m., dozens of people were still in the prohibited area.
Tensions ran high early. A man asked to leave a media area barked at a police officer, "I know what 'walk away' means." He complied, and most of the people still in camps seemed to be feverishly packing their belongings as a Coast Guard helicopter soared in wide circles overhead for at least an hour.
A woman along the road in the north part of the property pleaded with an unseen person in a ring of enclosures, "I'll buy you a fucking tent," she said, urgency filling her voice. "We need to leave." A ways north, a man sat on a crate next to his bicycle, its trailer having bottomed out under the weight of what was left of his belongings. "I don't know where I was going," the man said, tired and desperate.
Near the bay, two women stoked a fire with unwanted belongings — a tent, ice chests, a mattress — before the heat of the flames pushed them back. A man stepped in and helped them pull their bikes out of range of the fire.
Other trash fires popped up throughout the marsh, filling the air with the smell of burning plastic and damp, torched clothes. Police drove up and down the property but didn't attend to the fires — officers appeared to be passively observing, perhaps to avoid escalating tensions. Firefighters never came, and the fire burnt itself to a smolder.
Rumors abounded about resistance to the police eviction, but little seemed to come to fruition. A woman who Mills said was trying to make a statement was arrested in the parking lot after refusing to leave. But no other arrests were made.
And the city was taking a relatively patient approach to the stragglers. Service workers and clergy members wandered the grounds; local philanthropist Betty Chinn encouraged people to come to newly constructed shipping containers in Old Town, and one clergyman offered his phone to a young pregnant woman who said her grandmother might be able to come pick her up.
But misinformation also swirled through the camp. One woman — an apparent resident — assured another that police wouldn't cross into the marsh, even as officers were dismantling camps on its southern end. EPD homeless liaison Pam Millsap told the Journal she'd heard people repeat a rumor that Chinn's containers were going to be shipped away once filled with the homeless.
Dozens of reporters and photographers — as well as representatives from the Independent Observer Program — were allowed to walk around the grounds and watch the camps be dismantled. It was a conscious decision on Mills' part — during the press conference, he said it was intended to be a "very transparent" operation.
In the lead up to eviction day, the police department had mapped each of the camps, identifying the owners, and about 100 officers and city workers moved methodically from tent to tent, identifying themselves to the residents. Police stood by as people packed up their belongings, listening to them explain what they wanted to keep and what they were willing to part with.
If the tents were empty, police would start to tear them down, while a city employee took photos with a GPS-enabled camera of the camps and the property that the crews determined to be worth keeping. Big items were put on pallets and tagged with a number. Smaller belongings were put in tubs. It would all go into shipping containers from which residents could retrieve their property in the next 90 days, Mills said.
After that, inmate work crews descended on the camps, pulling apart the structures, pallets and common areas and throwing them into the open for large front loaders to haul to a waiting Dumpster. It was a busy, dusty, loud operation. Work crews turned up more than 1,000 syringes, and the ground was littered with broken glass and other less hazardous remnants of the Devil's Playground community: toys, tools, food packaging.
At the end of last week, county Animal Control Facilities Manager Rob Patton told the Journal that his employees would be assisting EPD's own animal control officer. It was all hands on deck, but the few remaining dogs this reporter saw — there were more than 50 at the marsh last week — were with owners who were hastily leaving the area.
Mills said he expected the painstaking cleanup to be finished by the end of May 3. At the end of the first day, crews had filled 10 Dumpsters with 88,000 pounds of trash. About half of the 70 campsites had been cleared — including one, Mills said, that had been rigged with a booby trap designed to spill urine on police officers.
Around 11 a.m. on May 2, Mills said the operation was still on schedule. Two people in the encampments were arrested that morning, he said, but on outstanding warrants, not for camping or trespassing. He said the city was still in the process of dealing with one last camper who hadn't left yet.
When the cleanup is complete, Mills said the marsh area will be a "maintenance" operation consisting of regular police visits to make sure people aren't re-entrenching in the site. He conceded at an afternoon press conference that his department was already receiving reports of campsites popping up elsewhere in the city.
A couple hundred yards away, a cluster of people sat on a curb on Bayshore Way near Applebee's passing around a tall can of Four Loko. One of the men, who looked to be in his early 30s and declined to give his name, said he wasn't sad to see the Devil's Playground encampment go. He'd enjoyed his time there, he said, noting the good people and plentiful drugs. But, he said, it wasn't healthy, and he chuckled at the notion that some residents were resisting the evictions.
"Back there ain't worth fighting for," he said.
A man in his early 20s with camouflage pants said he'd spent most of his adult life in the Devil's Playground.
"I'm going to get civilized," he said of his future plans, drawing hearty laughs from the group. Then a more heartfelt answer: "You want to know the God's honest truth? I'm going right back in there. Fuck the cops."
Editor's Note: This story was one in a four-article cover package. Read more at the links below.
“A Place that Absorbs Lost Souls”