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Homeless vacate Merced camps

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK
Brian Perez discusses the situation with Merced police officers as they start to enforce the no-camping ordinance at the homeless encampment at Black Rascal Creek in Merced, Calif. early Wed. morning Oct. 13, 2010.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Brian Perez discusses the situation with Merced police officers as they start to enforce the no-camping ordinance at the homeless encampment at Black Rascal Creek in Merced, Calif. early Wed. morning Oct. 13, 2010. Merced Sun-Star

Tattered black plastic tarp littered the ground around Cathy, who'd soon be evicted from Black Rascal Creek camp in Merced.

Wednesday morning, she sorted through her belongings, standing among empty water bottles, cardboard boxes, wooden planks and a shopping cart.

She was one of the few remaining residents who was still at the camp. "I'm packing up stuff that's important to us," she said as she bent down, plucking a shirt from the ground.

As she picked up clothes, she said she didn't know where she was going.

Nearby, a city official and police officer watched -- both called to enforce the no-camping ordinance at the camp that went into effect Wednesday.

In May, the City Council voted to enforce its no-camping ordinance by November. Numerous agencies and city officials worked to give notice at the two campsites -- Black Rascal Creek and Bear Creek -- before Wednesday.

The homeless issue has sparked a heated debate between the city and its constituents -- specifically whether the current plan was suitable to accommodate the homeless.

Now the question remains -- one echoed by protesters of the plan who carried signs in front of the camp which said, "Where am I supposed to live?" -- is, where will all the homeless go?

Some have moved on to live with family while others are seeking temporary shelter. Still others don't know where they will go.

"Everybody was being asked if they needed a place to live so we could make sure we were giving them the choices," Mike Conway, city spokesman, said. "We can't make anybody go to a shelter. We want to get people into places where they either have friends or family who can help them or other programs to help them."

City staff from various departments and about 30 police officers swept in at 7 a.m. and put up yellow police tape and signs enclosing the area of the camp. About eight homeless people were still left in the Black Rascal Creek camp, while eight more remained behind at the Bear Creek camp in the early morning, according to Conway.

Most had either left or were packing up their belongings by midmorning at both camps.

Wednesday morning, Brian Perez, 37, was packing a friend's belongings in his tent. Perez said he had already disposed of his own gear.

Roberta Medina, a code enforcement officer, also went around the camp and placed flags at campsites as reminders to inventory the belongings left behind. All belongings will be stored at the Merced Police Department evidence warehouse on Grogan Avenue. It will be held at the facility for 90 days. By midafternoon, barrels had arrived at both the camps to hold the homeless' belongings.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities, Wheel Solutions, Merced County Community Action Agency and Merced County Human Services Agency had set up tables to help any remaining homeless in the Black Rascal Creek camp.

Renee Mounce, housing manager at the D Street shelter, said there were 14 beds for men, three beds for women and 10 cots at the shelter.

However, there has been controversy in the past over how much room the shelters in town have because most have said they are over capacity.

Conway said the 10 cots would boost the capacity to 27 beds, adding that people have other avenues to take into consideration or they can stay at the D Street shelter.

And Merced County will provide transportation for the homeless to friends, family and shelters, according to Conway.

Homeless people weren't expected until at least 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Sierra Presbyterian Church because some still had to get their belongings from the camps, according to homeless advocate Renee Davenport. The church, at M Street, opened its doors to the homeless by providing food and shelter Wednesday.

Sgt. Bobby Chapman, who was at the Bear Creek camp, said most of the folks who were at the camp had left by midmorning.

In the early morning hours on Wednesday, a protester, Leo Albers, stood at the corner of Highway 59 and Santa Fe Road holding a sign that said, "How about a real plan?"

"God loves us all and we all have a right to a place to live," said the 55-year-old.

He and more than 20 others protested at the Black Rascal Creek camp in response to the city's solution to the homeless problem.

A Merced-based legal aid group, Central California Legal Services, has had qualms with the city's solution in the past. The group threatened to sue the city if it enforced the no-camping ordinance in June. It sent a letter to the city attorney, saying the city's plan to remove the camp dwellers was illegal and ill-conceived.

However, attorney Michele Zugnoni said the group wasn't sure just yet what its next step might be. "We are still considering all of our options, and we are still very willing to work with the city," she said. "Of course, we are still concerned as ever of the homeless and their plight."

At the Bear Creek camp, O.G., who said he didn't think giving his name was necessary, was one of the three people packing up his clothes. He said all his belongings encompassed "more than a man can carry." Originally from Chicago, he's been living in Merced for the past three-and-a-half years and had been staying at the camp since last year.

Monica Villa, 55, lived in a tent at the Black Rascal Creek camp for the past six months. "I'm not homeless -- I have a home," Villa said to some of the community action officials at their table.

Beginning today, the city will begin to clear up left-behind belongings, additional trash and Villa's former home.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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