For much of the year, the last leg of Morro Creek is little more than a dry, gravelly trail shaded by low trees on its way to the ocean. Vines run rampant, bearing orange and purple wildflowers that dangle from branches and make the place look almost enchanted when the fog is thick. There’s running water within walking distance, including a set of showers that surfers frequent near Morro Rock, working toilets, and a regular old spigot by the picnic tables at Lila Keiser Park. From the creek bed, a series of footpaths wander through small open spaces on raised banks. One couldn’t ask for a better place to pitch a tent, except that it’s technically illegal to camp there.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- FRUSTRATED AND HOPELESS : Karen keeps her site pretty clean, but will have to move because other campers have less regard for the environment.
For Morro Bay’s homeless population, the pro column far outweighs the con. On any given night, 10 to 15 people can be found sleeping in makeshift camps by the creek. Many have lived there without any problems for months—some for years—but a recent influx of transients, those who stop at Morro Creek for a few days or weeks as they travel the Pacific Coast Highway, has caused frequent fights to erupt and left the creek littered with junk. After downpours, the creek connects to the ocean, and the rushing water carries everything from the creek bed into the Pacific, including trash and human waste.
The situation puts the city, police, and homeless advocates in a precarious position. On one hand, it’s easier to provide free meals and medical services to this needy population (and keep tabs on them) when they’re congregated in one place. But as word spreads that there’s a safe haven near a local park, more and more people will come, some with drug addiction or mental health issues that could pose a threat to the families and little leaguers who use the park on weekends.
Purportedly, the site has grown too large to manage. Notices have been posted at 17 sites throughout the creek, and everybody will have to pack up and leave by Aug. 24.
In a joint effort with the California Conservation Corps, Department of Fish and Game, and San Luis Obispo County Mental Health Services, the Morro Bay Police Department (MBPD) is planning to descend into Morro Creek and remove anything they find. Tents, barbecue stoves, mattresses, blankets, pots, and pans—all will be hauled off to the dump.
At the April 24 Morro Bay City Council meeting, City Manager Andrea Lueker gave a brief presentation on the homeless situation at Lila Keiser, focusing on the homeless liaison officer’s recent retirement, meal services, and the controversy surrounding San Luis Obispo’s ordinance against sleeping in vehicles. Council members noted that many of the homeless individuals want to stay in Morro Bay and discussed advocating for more county services in town.
A public records request for any further e-mail correspondence among elected officials and the police department concerning problems with the homeless population turned up nothing. The decision to uproot a dozen lives was made without any public discussion.
“City Council has not been involved in this,” council member Nancy Johnson told New Times. “But we’re looking to authorize a volunteer community coordinator. It’s a complicated issue, and we’re doing our best to take care of our residents.”
In the meantime, the residents of the creek have told New Times they’ve been threatened with fines and warned not to return after the cleanup. No one wants to leave, and few know where they will go.
Trash or treasure?
There are two types of campsites at Morro Creek: One consists of a ramshackle tent strung loosely between trees in a small clearing cluttered with piles of clothes, trash, and old electrical equipment—things for which no casual observer could possibly divine a logical use. The sites look like an episode of Hoarders set outside, and they smell like a wet dog’s diaper. These are the ones that pollute the creek and ocean, according to state officials, the ones MBPD points to as justification for cleaning everything out.
But other sites, like the one Tonja Dooley calls home, are kept almost immaculate. Everything has a place and a purpose, and it’s clear that the occupants care for their spaces, intending to make the best of their time by the creek.
“What I bring in, I take out,” Dooley said. “I was raised not to leave anything behind.”
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- CAMPING DOS AND DON’TS : While some Morro Creek campsites are obviously trashed, others are well maintained. All will be removed.
Retired Morro Bay police officer Richard Hannibal would joke with Dooley that her site could win the “Better Homeless and Garden Award,” as it was the cleanest he’d ever seen. Still, her home will be treated the same way as all the others—torn down and hauled off to the dump, forcing her to head to the El Camino Homeless Organization’s shelter in Atascadero, where she’s worried the heat will impact her already poor health.
From 2011 to 2012, Hannibal served as the official liaison between MBPD and the homeless community, but his retirement in February left a void where there was once a bridge. Though Hannibal keeps in touch with his old co-workers and continues to volunteer during the Friday night meal service at Lila Keiser, the liaison position hasn’t been refilled, and many of the homeless people New Times interviewed blamed their pending eviction on Hannibal’s departure. They said that his was the only voice speaking on their behalf, and now the police have turned on them. The man was well revered among the campers. At least one person practically idolized him as a hero.
“Hannibal’s the only one that ever cared about us,” camp dweller Art Williams said.
The police department maintains that the decision to clear out the creek was based primarily on the levels of pollution, and that the action was long overdue. The last organized creek cleaning took place five years ago.
“Right now, the creek has become so embedded with camps that it’s hurting the environment,” MBPD spokesman Bryan Millard said.
Dr. Jean-Pierre Wolff of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board oversaw a similar operation in Edna Valley and said that when it comes to waste from homeless encampments, the impact on humans is more concerning than any unintended consequences to the natural habitat.
“Even a small cluster of residents can put themselves at risk for disease and infection,” Wolff said. “There’s a significant, cumulative effect over time.”
As the rainy season ebbs, there’s a brief period every year during which Morro Creek trickles past the forested area with too little force to meet the sea. Instead, the water pools on the beach, bakes beneath the sun, and offers a warm and inviting alternative to any kids who’d rather not swim in the frigid ocean.
The cleaning effort was announced in the August edition of the MBPD newsletter, stating that the sweep is in keeping with the department’s sworn oath to protect life, property, and the environment. Millard said the department doesn’t have enough storage to hold everyone’s property, so it will be removed and discarded.
“They treat the homeless like shit around here,” one camper told New Times.
She said she once held a respected and very public position at a local college and didn’t want to share her last name out of embarrassment for how far she’d fallen after breast cancer and the resulting medical bills ripped her old life away. She requested to be called only Karen, and her boyfriend, Jerry, asked for the same treatment.
“It took us forever to get all this stuff together,” Karen said. “I didn’t have a cook stove for months.”
Karen said she arrived in Morro Creek with nothing. The first night, her ex-boyfriend got drunk and beat her up. She fled the creek to sleep alone on the beach, where Jerry found her. He and another camper chased the ex-boyfriend out of the site and helped build a compound of sorts for Karen.
“I never would have thought that I’d find the love of my life in a place like this,” Karen said.
Their site is practically invisible from the creek bed. A woven mesh of vines hides the tents from view, and visitors have to duck under a strategically placed branch to find the trail, which is lined with large tin lids that crinkle loudly whenever anyone approaches. They have a nice tent and plenty of blankets, a clothes line for jackets, and cobbled-together shelves that hold utensils, seasonings, and cookware. Around the corner, there’s a curtained-off bathroom area with a bucket that Karen and Jerry say they haul out and flush down the park restrooms daily.
Even aesthetics are taken into consideration, as Karen decorates the “walls” with wildflowers she finds in the creek bed.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SERVICE CENTER : The picnic tables at Lila Keiser Park are the only decent place to serve meals to the hungry, but many families object to the presence of vagrants at the park.
“We don’t have a vehicle to take this stuff anywhere,” Karen said. “If we had the means, we’d clean out the other sites, but they don’t want a community cleanup. They just want us out of here.”
Where creek meets park
On the multiple occasions that a New Times reporter walked the creek, none of the campers ever seemed dangerous or violent, and several volunteers suggested the same thing: These are nice people going through hard times.
“The [year-round residents] are just adorable people,” local pastor Randy Ponder said. “I’d trust putting a tent next to any of them and spending the night.”
Though every camper has his or her unique reasons for being homeless, they’re all struggling with real issues that keep them on the outskirts of society. Those issues can become especially evident when children and families are using the Lila Keiser Park facilities.
Millard told New Times that at least two high school students have reported being harassed in the area, and many concerned parents have called the department complaining that they feel uncomfortable with dirty people lurking around the perimeter of the park. Millard couldn’t recall any serious altercations between homeless people at Morro Creek and the general public, though homeless people do often fight amongst themselves, Millard said. Over the last year, police have been called to the area 14 times per month, on average.
Once or twice a month, the park’s groundskeepers have to call the police because someone is passed out in the public restrooms, according to Maintenance Superintendent Michael Wilcox.
“It’s probably pretty traumatic for a kid to find someone like that,” Wilcox said.
For the most part, people New Times talked to said they strive to police themselves and keep rowdy travelers from drawing unwanted attention to the community. Unfortunately, all they can really do is shun any newcomers, withholding local tips and refusing to chat during the regular meal services.
Working together, the Quota Club, St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, Carla’s Country Kitchen, and Rock Harbor Christian Fellowship are able to serve warm meals and coffee to the creek’s residents three times per week. They also donate blankets and organize non-perishable food drives. The meals offer a chance for the town’s entire homeless population to get together, creating a sense of community that runs deeper than most suburban neighborhoods.
“There’s electricity by the tables, so sometimes we’ll plug in a laptop and watch a movie together,” Karen said. “It makes you feel almost normal.”
The police see things a little differently.
“Outreach is great; feeding is great; but when it crosses the line into enabling, it can become a problem,” Millard said.
In the weeks after the cleanup, Hannibal said he expects MBPD to keep a strong presence at the park to deter people from returning. Volunteer groups will be allowed to serve meals at the park, but some are worried that no one will show up—at first.
“There’s no other spot that would be conducive,” said Ponder. “They’ll come back. That’s the reality.”
Aside from the private, charity–based meals, Morro Bay has virtually zero homeless services and hardly any low-income housing. A senior living project is underway for South Main Street, but funding is a challenge. And on Aug. 14, the City Council voted 4-1 to waive the affordable housing fees it could have levied against a 14-unit development. Councilman Noah Smukler dissented.
For every permit the city issues, builders pay a 30 cents per square foot fee into an affordable housing fund. Additionally, projects with eight or more units are required to provide 10 percent of the building as affordable housing or pay the equivalent value into the fund. Developer Bud Sturgill hired a consultant to lobby the city, complaining that he was being double charged for affordable housing. Other cities have similar fee schedules, but Morro Bay decided to oblige the developer and waive his 30 cents per square foot fee.
“We haven’t developed anything for low or very low income households,” Smukler said. “We are really deficient.”
Although there aren’t any offices in Morro Bay, the city donated $8,630 to the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO) in 2012. The nonprofit operates a homeless shelter and day center in San Luis Obispo and strives to link individuals to county-based benefits. Director Dee Torres visited Morro Creek after the cleanup was announced to tell people about the services CAPSLO offers.
“Our case workers will meet people where they are,” Torres said. “Their caseloads aren’t full at all. We’d be happy to work with more people.”
For those willing to relocate, simply meeting with a case worker is enough to secure a guaranteed bed at the Maxine Lewis Homeless Shelter in San Luis Obispo, Torres said. Half of the beds are held for the newly homeless and those meeting with case workers, the other half are divvied out through a nightly lottery.
A loosely organized coalition of volunteers is working to improve the situation in Morro Bay, but for now, they’re little more than a think tank. They meet weekly to toss ideas around, and may submit something to the City Council down the road, too late to help with the current crisis at the creek.
Hannibal said they might propose a permit system that would enable tidier campers to stay at the creek as long as they met certain city requirements, or else they would initiate a mentor program, in which a volunteer would pair up with a homeless individual and help them navigate the county bureaucracy and get rides to San Luis Obispo.
“Even though there are more services in San Luis Obispo, it’s less safe,” Hannibal said. “These people want to stay where they are.”
Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at [email protected].