December 14, 2012
Cory Meek has lived in a Chinatown encampment he calls "tent city" for a year.
About twenty homeless people live there—people Meek says are trying to get out.
“Most of us that live there want change,” he says.
At a community meeting in the Salinas City Rotunda last night, Meek, in a grey hoodie and a dark blue San Francisco Giants cap, stood before a group of more than 100.
He'd come bearing a message from the tent city homeless.
"The only word they wanted me to say, in front of all the people who represent Salinas, is 'help,'” he said.
Homelessness was the issue residents had gone to discuss, but solutions—or help—is what they were after, for both the homeless and for the people dealing with problems associated with homelessness.
The meeting, a culmination of citywide uproar following the beating of a homeless man in October, drew citizens of all stripe, from business owners to politicians to the homeless themselves.
"We're not going to solve all the world's problems tonight, but we're certainly going to take a stab at it as it relates to Salinas," said councilmember Steve McShane.
The meeting was organized by the Oldtown Salinas Association, and discussion led by Amit Pandya, the association president. Pandya asked people to step forward and relay their concerns, and by the end of the hour-and-a-half session about twenty people had spoken. The small chamber of the Salinas Rotunda was packed, all the seats taken, and people lining the walls.
"We'd just like to have a little respect. We're just like all the rest of you," said Robert Beach, a homeless man with a long braid and a craggy, weathered face. "We're not a bunch of animals."
But business owners said respect cuts both ways.
They spoke about some of the negative effects of homelessness on their businesses.
"Our issue with merchants is not with homeless people, it’s with aggressive panhandlers," said Inez Salinas, owner of clothing boutique American Buckskin. "You guys have to understand and respect what we do for a living so we can feed our families and our kids."
Others spoke about witnessing drug transactions, finding needles in their property, and being harassed.
"I don't want to fear for my safety, I don't want to clean up urine from the front of my store," said Stacey Wilson, an Oldtown Association board member and owner of 9M-Nine Months & Beyond.
Jim Riley, a co-owner of Rollick's Speciality Coffee, suggested that the city install portable toilets to deal with some of the problems he sees when people come in to the store—or use his alleyway— to go to the restroom.
In many ways the meeting was a dialogue—a conversation between the homeless community and the business community. And they seemed to be listening to each other.
After a man got up to challenge homeless people to look for the resources to better their lives—“We all pay taxes for it”— a woman, dressed all in pink, took the podium.
Kimberly Kyle, who has been homeless for “14 years flat—you can put that in the paper,” had this to say: “I think it’s only fair as a homeless person, maybe, just maybe if we got off our butts and looked for the resources they put out there, we could get more help."
Yesterday’s meeting, which focused on naming problems and concerns, was just the beginning of a longer discussion, Pandya said. Another meeting focusing on possible solutions is forthcoming.