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From the River to the Streets 

Sheriff's office rousts Fortuna's largest encampment

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Photo by Linda Stansberry

While camp sweeps have gotten their fair share of coverage in Eureka, the Friendly City to the south is weathering its own issues related to Humboldt's homeless. A longstanding camp near Palmer Boulevard, just northwest of city limits, was visited by the sheriff's office multiple times this spring with an estimated 40 indigents ousted onto the streets of Fortuna.

Sean Swanson, founder the Riverlife Foundation, says that his organization has worked with volunteers and homeless residents to remove an estimated 31,000 pounds of trash from the area since January.

"One guy had been down there for about seven years, just minding his own business," said Swanson, who has been working with residents of the Palmer Creek camp for close to eight years. "I had a lot of them that would cooperate with me."

Police sweeps in the area aren't new, but Swanson and others report that this is the first time in many years that the encampment — once the largest in the area — has been completely dispersed. Previous visits from county law enforcement pushed residents farther away from city limits, across a ravine and closer to the banks of the Eel River. Although flooding was a constant problem, the remoteness of the area was an asset for many. Out of sight and out of mind, yet within walking distance of town, those living there felt secure enough to erect semi-permanent dwellings. The camp boasted a system of bridges and pulleys to transport goods across the ravine. Several residents had built structures from pallets and discarded building supplies. One woman had even created a small cabin with glass windows. Swanson said that he and other volunteers didn't "have the heart" to tear the cabin down when they visited for the final cleanup in March.

In a phone interview, Sheriff Mike Downey was careful to clarify language associated with the sweep.

"This is not a campground," he said. "It's a highly vegetated area. These people are clearly trespassing on private property, bringing in all kinds of trash and debris. No way is that any kind of campground."

The land in question is a patchwork of private, special district and county property. Downey said the sheriff's office was responding to concerns raised by the Palmer Creek Community Services District, which provides drinking water treatment and distribution for residents of the unincorporated Palmer Creek area. Workers with the district had complained about tire fires and expressed concern that garbage and human waste might contaminate nearby wells. They also reported that alarms on equipment had been activated at odd hours of the night. The sheriff's office began visiting the area in February to serve notices to the residents, leaving laminated signs warning of imminent ejection. After several contacts, the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program returned for a final day of debris removal.

At that time, Swanson said, there were around 15 to 20 people remaining. They have since dispersed, mostly to undeveloped areas within city limits. Every Saturday the Riverlife Foundation feeds about 40 people. Swanson uses these lunches to network with the needy, offer services and get an estimate of how many people are living rough by the river. (The 2013 Point in Time Count put the number of homeless people in Fortuna at 92, a number which includes those living in transitional housing or couchsurfing.)

"We've seen a lot of influx from Eureka since the sweeps behind the mall," Swanson said. "They got to go somewhere. Eureka needs to do something about it, not just shuffling them to somewhere else. Up there they have people doing food, social services. We don't have that here." He said his foundation has helped 88 people find jobs or transition out of the area over the past eight years.

Dawson "Roadie" Phillip was one of several residents who moved his possessions from the Palmer Creek area into the heart of Fortuna. His new camp, a tent bolstered with driftwood, draped with tarps and framed by a pallet fence, sits on a parcel of private land less than three yards from South Fortuna Boulevard.

"I told the police I've got nowhere to go," Phillip said. "They're just throwing me right into town and the town's not going to put up with me."

Like Downey, Phillip also takes issue with the word "camp." Holding aloft a series of acrylic paintings, he said that he would prefer his residence be referred to as an "outdoor art studio." The paintings were some of the few things not stolen when he moved his belongings.

"As soon as I make one trip, the rest of my stuff is gone," said Phillip. "I would just like to be out here legally, but as soon as I set up [the police] run me off."

Phillip said he initially moved to Eureka from Kansas with a few thousand dollars in seed money, intending to make a fresh start, but his motel room was broken into and he was robbed within the first week. Since then he hasn't returned to Eureka, saying he feels both unsafe and persecuted there. Ideally, he said, he'd like to rent some land. With his SSI payments he can afford about $200 a month. Local homeless advocates are also working to get his artwork into a gallery.

Fortuna Police Chief Bill Dobberstein confirmed that citations for illegal camping within city limits have increased in recent months, but said that his department hasn't seen a dramatic increase in other calls.

Phillip's current camp boasts a solar panel hovering above a small garden of pansies and poppies. At the Palmer Creek camp he had also set up a small hydroelectric wheel in the ravine, which he used to charge batteries for others in the community and repaired a Honda generator someone had dumped on the riverbar. Most of their gear and most of the garbage at the encampment, he said, came from illegal dump sites. When the Riverlife Foundation came by with trash bags, Phillip would organize fellow campers to fill them.

Swanson confirmed that illegal dumping by city residents has contributed to the nuisance factor.

"A lot of our community leaves their pallets and stuff, then people get creative," Swanson said. "I wish we could get more of a handle on it and not have such a free-for-all. It's all ending up down on the riverbar. I'm up to 139,000 pounds [of trash] since I started doing this."

Swanson was himself homeless for two years before starting Riverlife. He said many of the people he works with are cooperative about cleaning up, but there were issues with drug activity, fires and crime at Palmer Creek. The sheriff's office team that cleaned up the site found large amounts of drug paraphernalia and human waste.

Phillip and his girlfriend have already received a citation at their new camp. Moving will be a trial. Phillip's girlfriend has scoliosis and must be transported on a cart hooked to the back of Phillip's bike. At this time the couple isn't sure where they'll go, but it will definitely be somewhere in Fortuna.

"Short of going to prison, I'm not going anywhere," said Phillip.

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