The SLO City Park Rangers who came armed with chainsaws a week ago did a thorough job of demolishing the elaborate campsite that has been Eddie Tolosko’s home for the past 11 years. They destroyed his garden—non-native species, he said they told him. They cut down the branches that had offered shelter, concealment, and containment for his chicken. They even cut down the tree he and his wife Susan had decorated for Christmas.
Tolosko said he was told his site was destroyed because his possessions were considered “debris” and ordinances require that there be none within 150 feet of the San Luis Obispo Creek—his camp was on its banks.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- THIS WAS A HOME: Eddie Tolosko surveys the remains of the camp he called home for 11 years. SLO City Park Rangers recently demolished it in the midst of a battle to get him to vacate the area.
Ranger Service Supervisor Doug Carscaden said the cutting was actually part of a broader effort to address flood issues, although he said Tolosko’s camp has been a key concern for months. Asked why only the area immediately around Tolosko’s campsite was cut, Carscaden said other areas will get addressed later.
Tolosko doesn’t buy it.
“I said ‘please don’t!’ he recalled. “They’ve been trying to push me out, but I wasn’t going to go. Now they’ve totally wiped the place out.”
He said the city has been ramping up efforts to roust him for months. Nearly a year ago, he said, city rangers came through and, days after posting a notice, confiscated many of his most valuable possessions, including a winter jacket, tent, gas-powered generator, and solar panels.
He said he was told the possessions were open to confiscation because they were “unattended.”
Carscaden said he doesn’t recall specifically whether rangers seized Tolosko’s possessions—and he said he certainly doesn’t recall anything such as a generator being taken—but he said the city does take the possessions of homeless people, including tents, when they are deemed to have been abandoned.
“The process is we post it, we give them adequate time in order for them to remove themselves and their belongings from the area … Once they’re gone, we sometimes take away whatever they don’t take with them.”
Tolosko’s recent brush with ranger-manned chainsaws sheds light on one of the more severe tactics the city of SLO uses to deal with people who have no homes.
When homeless people ignore or battle “illegal camping” tickets they are periodically issued, they subject themselves to actions that range from seizure of their “abandoned” property to demolition of their campsites and tents.
Betsy Kiser, who heads the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said possessions are taken only in specific instances.
“I know that we follow very strict procedures,” she said. “We have to be really cautious in how we remove stuff.”
According to Michael Ian, a formerly homeless man who writes a SLO homeless blog at slohomeless.wordpress.com, the city’s tactics of seizing or destroying possessions found at homeless camps has been going on for some time.
- FILE PHOTO
- PARKS DIRECTOR: Betsy Kiser said the city follows “very strict procedures” in seizing the possessions of homeless people.
On his blog, he described a crackdown a year ago on the camps of people who had no other shelter, which were tagged with notices that ordered residents to remove their belongings or face arrest and/or seizure of their belongings. As with Tolosko, Ian said many homeless people reported that their tents and belongings were destroyed during the raids. He said his own tent was damaged and made unusable once when he was homeless; he wasn’t there when it happened but presumes it was police or rangers because it coincided with his site being “tagged” by city police.
“I just think it’s wrong to seize people’s property that way. I think it’s an abuse of power,” Ian said in an interview.
In Tolosko’s case, he said he spent most of the 11 years he lived at the campsite undisturbed. County outreach workers and sheriff’s deputies would occasionally check in, but largely left him alone.
Things changed, he said, when the property, near a highway onramp near Los Osos Valley Road, came to be within city limits. And the most recent action, he said, came after police arrested others in the same area on drug charges—something for which he was grateful.
Carscaden said the city has made consistent efforts—including bringing along representatives from Prado Day Center and Maxine Lewis Shelter, to get Tolosko to move, but to no avail.
More broadly, he said rousting the homeless from creekside camps is a constant battle.
“Honestly, it’s just a shuffle and we just move them from spot to spot. We’ve got to take care of the environment, which they are definitely not, and kind of clean stuff behind them.”
The city of San Luis Obispo has worked consistently and sometimes creatively to rid the area of signs of homelessness. When public bathrooms became viewed as places where people without homes would sleep, they were closed at nights. When a monument in the park across from the Mission came to be a gathering place for people without shelter, it was demolished and replaced. Bus-stop benches throughout the city have been replaced with ones that make lying down more difficult. And the city gained national attention when the city/county library instituted a policy allowing the staff to eject people who smell bad.
Kiser helped organize some of those efforts as facilitator for the city’s Transient Task Force in 2006.
As a liberal-leaning, temperate community midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the city is a popular destination for transients, distinct from long-term residents who are chronically homeless and well known to social workers and authorities. A 2006 count found about 80 percent of homeless people have lived in the county more than a year, and 20 percent have lived here more than 5 years. That count found 2,408 homeless people in the county, of whom 188 were staying in shelters. About 30 percent were living outdoors.
Tolosko falls in that group, someone who has been well known to authorities, but until recently mostly left alone. He laughs that there is irony in the sort of property that he said the city rangers have demolished or confiscated: Some of the tents and sleeping bags he said the rangers took had been provided by county outreach workers.
The more recent actions, however, raise unique concerns.
Across the country, homeless “sweeps” have raised the question of when it is okay for police or officials to confiscate the property of the homeless. Many have led to lawsuits.
The American Civil Liberties Union has launched several lawsuits against municipalities on the topic. They’ve argued, variously, that such seizures violate Constitutional civil rights or their rights to due process.
In one 2003 settlement with the city of Pittsburgh, the city agreed to give notice to homeless people before such sweeps would occur and to hold on to possessions for a year so the homeless people could retrieve them.
A more recent settlement in Fresno arose out of a case where the city conducted a “cleanup” where city workers hauled away the possessions of some 200 homeless people.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- WHAT’S LEFT: (At left) A bauble that once decorated a cut-down tree and a few other items are all that remains of Tolosko’s 11-year camp. (At right) In another part of town, this homeless camp was demolished after CalTrans workers posted a “Notice to Vacate Illegal Campsite.”
The homeless people sued, saying the city had violated their rights, and came away with a $2.3 million settlement. Ian said he has tried to find a local attorney to handle a potential lawsuit against the city, to no avail.
SLO City Park Rangers aren’t the only ones locally who employ such tactics. Another site where homeless people camp near the highway behind the California Highway Patrol building was recently demolished after Cal-Trans posted the site with a “Notice to vacate illegal campsite” sign. According to the sign, left behind along with an abandoned tent, tarp, and pile of clothes, any property left after such a sign is posted is considered to be abandoned and thus can be taken and either stored or disposed of as waste. (In that case, while the sign said seized items could be claimed by calling a phone number, no phone number was visible on the posting.)
For now, Tolosko isn’t budging. He’s determined to stay in the general area, even if that means moving every night to avoid further actions.
Said Tolosko: “There’s nowhere to go.”
Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.