Homeless peaks in South County in the late summer, and it's expected to be even more dire this year as the Salvation Army closes and the from a devastating fire three months ago.
In Pajaro, where the Pajaro Rescue Mission has provided a safe, clean place for men to sleep since the 1960s, staff is preparing for the worst.
"This is sort of a perfect storm," said Mike Borden, executive director of Teen Challenge Monterey Bay at the Pajaro Rescue Mission.
They already are setting up cots on the floor of the shelter's chapel and want more. Staff also is eyeing expansion into the shuttered Salvation Army facilities, should the Pajaro Rescue Mission and a group of community partners reach a formal agreement with Salvation Army.
"We will take that up, no matter what," Borden said of the influx of need. "We don't turn people away."
There were 530 homeless people in Watsonville in 2011 and 252 elsewhere in South County, according to the 2011 Santa Cruz Homeless Census.
"It's a big challenge, but it's something our community needs to meet head-on," said Chuck Allen, a Watsonville Realtor and the former board president for the Pajaro Valley Salvation Army. "... There's no room at the inn."
It provides cots or beds, clean blankets, three meals a day, showers, job training, education and religious services to 70-80 men a night.
That number could increase significantly in the next few weeks.
- The Salvation Army shutters its overnight facilities in Watsonville. The closure, announced earlier this summer in light of financial difficulties, will eliminate 41 beds for homeless in South County starting Aug. 15.
- Compounding the problem is the men who had lived at the Stag Hotel on West Beach Street. A fire, , tore through the historic residential hotel April 30, leaving more than 50 residents without a place to live. A few returned to the rear building, which only sustained smoke damage, about two weeks ago. Repairs on the main building are expected to take several more months.
- Add to that the possibility that men who camp along the Pajaro River may be displaced as work crews dig sediment from the river bed in the coming weeks. The Bench Excavation Project will be working down the river channel for the next two months, and campers already have been warned about the pending project.
- The old Metro bus shed on Sakata Lane was razed earlier this month. For years, it's been a makeshift shelter for homeless.
- Lastly, Santa Cruz police have been conducting sweeps of homeless camps in the city. The enforcement may have shifted some homeless south to the Watsonville area.
Even without these unexpected events, August and September traditionally are hard months for homeless because it's the high season for field world and tourism. Rentals are full and motels, which sometimes house homeless through a voucher program, are booked with paying clients.
Pajaro Rescue Mission Program Coordinator Manuel Uriarte called it "a looming crisis."
"There's not a lot of places for people who are homeless to go, other than the streets," Bordon said.
But there is hope.
The Salvation Army is willing to talk about allowing an outside agency to operate its buildings, according to Salvation Army spokeswoman Laine J. Hendricks.
"In the meantime, we have committed to purchase 20 cots for the Pajaro Rescue Mission to use, in the event that they receive several individuals who are currently in our shelter," Hendricks said. "Above all, we want to continue serving those homeless individuals who need assistance in the best way possible for all parties involved."
The Red Cross gave the Pajaro Rescue Mission 18 cots and a community member donated a couple more, according to Allen. Those will increase capacity at the shelter.
"It's a work in progress," Allen said. "None of us had much time to react to the emergency."
Homeless advocates including Allen, Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano, the staff from the Pajaro Rescue Mission, and Lynn Pielenz, chaplain at the Freedom Women's Shelter, are meeting with leaders in the faith community and soliciting assistance from businesses.
"There is a dire need for financial support," Allen said. "... This is a time when everyone can come together and help."
Editor's Note: This is one of several stories about homelessness in the Pajaro Valley. Patch is focusing on this issue during the summer because of the closure of Salvation Army shelters and the 50th anniversary of the Pajaro Rescue Mission. Read more here.