Audio by Marcus Cocova
On and off for four years, 70-year-old Kevin Miller would stay with 20 to 30 others at an encampment near Morro Creek, living off small amounts of social security, services and some work on the side.
Last week, an excavator cleared through that encampment.
A Texas-based energy company, Vistra Corp., owns the land containing the illegal encampment and a defunct power plant. From Monday, May 24 to Friday, May 28, Vistra and Morro Bay Police Department began removing “all unauthorized items” from the land and said they would provide notice of Trespass to anyone who entered the property.
The encampment occupants were notified of the upcoming cleanup two weeks in advance when the company contracted to clear the property was surveying the area. The week before the encampment demolition, notices were posted and police notified the encampment again, with two representatives specializing in homeless services offering “assistance for new placement” to unhoused individuals, according to Morro Bay Police Commander Amy Watkins.
The Morro Creek area has been used as an encampment for several years, and Morro Bay Police conducted other large-scale encampment sweeps over the past few years before Vistra’s efforts last week.
Several members of homeless outreach organizations said they were ashamed and horrified at the lack of consideration for the human and environmental impacts.
Candace Winstead, who is a member of the SLO Bangers Syringe Exchange and Overdose Prevention Program that has been serving the Morro Bay encampment for months said the unhoused people and the community that serves them both should have been made better prepared for the displacement.
“It’s a big family, and they have nowhere to go,” Winstead said.
SLO Bangers Site Manager Lo Petty told Mustang News that police have told unhoused community members to leave many times, yet nothing ever happened until last week.
Morro Bay Police said clearing the vegetation was needed so Vistra security could “maintain a clear view of the property for daily patrols of their property.”
“We undertook the initiative because of the growing size of these camps and the long list of hazardous health, safety, security and environmental conditions that developed,” Vistra Spokesperson Meranda Cohn said in an email to Mustang News.
Some people who lived at the encampment are from the Central Coast originally, and Petty said many are employed but can’t afford to pay rent.
Kevin Miller said he occasionally stays in motel rooms, but he can’t afford them for very long, especially with weekend and summer prices.
The people who stayed at the encampment included a “mom” type who took care of others, as well as people old and young, some with health problems, pets and varying backgrounds, according to Winstead.
“I think it speaks poorly of us as a society that we’re willing to displace people like this with no alternatives, no services set up for them,” Winstead said.
In spring 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against disruptions like clearing encampments, as it could displace unhoused individuals during the pandemic and perpetuate the spread of COVID-19. While Morro Bay has a supply of beds for the homeless community, Petty says there’s a loophole; these beds are only available to people under certain conditions.
Petty said some of the people who stayed at the encampment don’t meet the eligibility requirements for federal or state housing programs.
“There’s people left out in the cold,” Petty said.
Morro Bay City Manager Scott Collins added that the PRADO homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo is a “low barrier shelter,” avoiding those loopholes and strict eligibility requirements. PRADO sent two representatives t0 the encampment multiple times to offer beds and shelter and refer people to new locations, according to Collins.
The City of Morro Bay also offers homeless outreach services to help.
“The services offered are most often not accepted by the homeless who still remain in the creek encampments,” Police Commander Watkins said in an email. “This was the case last week and continues to be the case today.”
Sheena Jones from the Salvation Army was one volunteer on the Vistra property Monday providing food, water and other services to the unhoused community as they’ve done in the past.
“They want something done, but they don’t want it done in their backyard,” Jones said. “You’re just telling them to go from one encampment to another. You’re not actually helping.”
The SLO Bangers group is currently hosting a clothing and supply drive for the houseless community members displaced by the encampment demolition.
The most needed items are tents, nylon sleeping bags, tarps, socks and underwear, clothing, toiletries, wipes and personal care items.
Donors can contact SLO Bangers at (805) 458-0123 to schedule a time to pick up items. People can also donate money for supplies by Venmoing the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN), the fiscal sponsor of SLO Bangers, at @Purchase_253 with the memo “SLO Bangers.”
City Manager Collins said it appears the challenge of encampments on both private and public property will grow amid the continuing economic effects of the pandemic.
“We realize that encampment abatement will not solve the issue, though private property owners certainly are within their rights to maintain their property,” Collins said. “The City is partnering with the County and other cities in the region to develop short-term and long-term solutions to this complex issue. We welcome community input about how best to address the issue.”
The company contracted to clear the Morro Creek area last week will continue to do so on an as-needed basis, police said.
“I know I’ve been a squatter, basically, and I’ve been appreciative of the time I’ve spent here,” Miller said. “We’ve been here rent free, so that’s a gift. I’m not looking at that as anything but a gift.”