Eureka police officers on Wednesday morning posted notices in the greenbelt area known as the Devil’s Playground and informed those residing there that they had 10 days to gather their belongings and move elsewhere.
“We contacted 113 people today,” Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said. “We went from north to south. We notified every person that’s out there. At some point in the future, we will do enforcement out there.”
Mills cautioned that does not mean a sweep.
He said the residents are being urged to begin making arrangements to live elsewhere and have been provided information about social services to accomplish that mission. Once the 10 days have passed, citations will be issued, the city attorney may seek stayaway orders and, if that doesn’t work, residents could face arrest.
“We (the police department) are a piece of this function,” Mills said. “We’re not the whole deal.” The illegal camping situation behind the Bayshore Mall has been discussed repeatedly at the department head level, he said, and the decision has been made to ask people to leave.
Redwood Empire Municipal Insurance Fund (REMIF) — the city’s insurer — has indicated it will not cover the city if any additional injuries occur at Devil’s Playground, Mills said, and environmental agencies have threatened litigation if the city doesn’t take action.
City Manager Greg Sparks confirmed in a city of Eureka press release press release issued Wednesday that the city has received complaints from the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Coastal Commission and residents about trash and pollution.
Sparks said in the release that the city “believes it is critical to enforce cleanup and end camping on public property in the environmentally sensitive marsh and greenbelt areas of the community. These areas need to be available for the enjoyment of all our residents and our visitors.”
The area is home to an estimated 100 to 200 people taking shelter in tents and other temporary structures. The site has also been the focus of past police attention to find and arrest suspects of various crimes believed to be hiding there.
Following an April 15 raid — in which more than 20 people were arrested — Mills, Sparks and Eureka Community/Development Services Director Rob Holmlund began to search for a site to establish a sanctioned and monitored camp. After a few months, that effort was abandoned and attention re-focused on the rapid re-housing model and the July 1 opening of the repurposed Multiple Assistance Center.
With this latest step, Mills said, housing information will be provided to the residents, but they will have to apply to get the assistance needed. At the same time, some $200,000 of the city’s Measure Z funds will be channeled through the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services to assist the homeless in acquiring housing.
The encampment has been a source of frustration for many.
“On top of it,” Mills said. “we’ve got scores of complaints from businesses, homeowners, community members, travelers ... I mean scores of complaints.”
EPD public information officer Brittany Powell said the notice to vacate informs residents it is illegal to camp on public or private property and that personal belongings must be removed within 10 days On the flip side of the postings, she said, is a list of contact numbers for social services.
The city press release states that while the city hopes that those needing assistance will take steps to obtain services, it hasn’t been happening.
“The Eureka Rescue Mission is a prime example of available services that go unused,” the release states. “In June, the Mission had a capacity for 60 men and 33 women; however, most days it operated at half of that capacity.”
During the process of notifying the residents, EPD officers arrested one man on an outstanding felony warrant.
Mills said he’ll be meeting with the residents of the encampment on July 22 to explain what is going on and why. It’s a message that has been delivered repeatedly, he said. EPD officers have spent 192 hours in the encampment since January.
“We’ve warned people countless times,” he said.
The effort to clean up the area has already begun and will continue once the area is no longer an illegal campground.
The city of Eureka’s marsh maintenance program — an every-Thursday cleanup area that rotates between four sections west of Broadway — will be active today in an area designated as section 3. The section’s boundaries follow Vigo Street west, veer south and back toward Broadway, skirting the rear of the Six Rivers National Forest headquarters.
The city launched the program July 2, announcing that routine maintenance such as trash and invasive plant removal would rotate weekly through the four identified sections between Del Norte Street to the north and Truesdale Street to the south.
Those camping in those area are given 72 hours notice to remove personal belongings prior to the cleanup.
“This routine clean-up program is not for criminalizing houseless or solving our homeless issues,” the release states. “This program is designed to address the city’s responsibility as a property owner ... Parks and Recreation is responsible for maintaining the greenbelts and will be the lead on illegal dumping encampment remnant cleanup. EPD presence is just to insure compliance with the notification process and make sure order is maintained.”City staff and SWAP (Sheriff’s Work Alternative Team) will do the cleanup.
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