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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
OUR TOWN: The camps, officially temporary, host a thriving community. A resident cradles a camp kitten, nicknamed Pantera.

Down by the River

Life and death in the Pajaro River levee camps

By Jessica Lussenhop

IN WATSONVILLE, within certain circles, it is a well known fact that if your wife or parents kick you out, or if you're down on your luck, or if you just don't want to be found, you can go down to the river levee. There, hidden along the banks of the Pajaro River in the brush and high grass, out of sight from the apartment complex windows and the prefab homes with their Dish Network satellites, you'll find the casitas--little houses--built from tarps, bungee cords, tree limbs and blankets, constructed and tended to by a chronically homeless population of monolingual Spanish speakers. If you have nowhere to go, on the levee it's possible to get a bite, maybe a beer and, if you get there early enough, even a bed. Most nights, that is, except for the night of March 25.

That morning, a Wednesday, dawned bright and dewy along a stretch of the levee parallel to Bridge Street on the southeast side of town. The diesel growl of a John Deere 444H wheel loader alternately grew louder and softer as it prowled down along the riverside, almost out of sight, then back up again, flattening the bright green grass in its path and ferrying bucket after bucket of dusty furniture to a Dumpster in the River Park parking lot. A team of yellow-vested city workers hiked in after it with brooms and garbage cans.

From a gravel path frequented by joggers and dog walkers a small gathering of bleary-eyed men watched, their hands and faces tanned dark. One of them, a man in a battered cowboy hat who said his name was Jaime, could speak a little English. "We never want any problems," he said in a thick accent, the blue smoke from the decimated campsites' fires still hazing the air behind him. But after eight years of living here, he acknowledged that problems, like your entire house being carted away, happen all the time. "We got a lot of problems," he said. "This life is no life."

A WEEK earlier, Officer Henry Robles of the Watsonville Police Department climbed aboard a two-seat diesel-powered Kubota utility vehicle and drove the short distance from the Union Street police headquarters to the river levee. "I've been here 19 years, and I can't remember how many times I've done this," he said.

It's difficult to say exactly when the first migrant worker built a camp on the river, but most people, like Watsonville Police Chief Terry Medina, guess that the encampments started in the '80s and were at one time temporary camps for indigent migrant workers just arrived from Mexico.

But the camps have changed. The little shelters sprang up and, as men and women began staying there year-round, became more numerous and elaborate.

"It's kind of evolved. There used to be more people that worked in agriculture, now there's a lot less," Medina says. "I don't know exactly how to explain this. They're not like the homeless people in Santa Cruz. They're not an in-your-face kind of panhandler. They drink and kind of hang out. They want to be left alone."

But the city figures it can't really leave them alone, so a few times a year it dispatches an officer into the camps. This time it was Robles' turn. The Kubota rumbled down from the running path and into the 3-feet-high grass, sending birds leaping into the air.

"A dead giveaway," said Robles as the vehicle lurched dangerously over the uneven ground, "is these footpaths. See the smoke?"

Crashing through the brush, the Kubota found its way to the smooth, well-worn footpath leading down into the riverbed. Two men came into view and wheeled their bikes out of the way. Robles killed the engine and stepped out.

"Buenos días," he said, and handed each a sheet of paper that read, in English and Spanish, "On March 25, 2009, the city of Watsonville will be removing any and all structures, beds, blankets and any other material that is left behind. Pursuant to Watsonville muni code: 10-2.11 Camping in any park prohibited. 10-2.15 Remaining in park during nighttime hours." The city has increased its levee cleanups from a couple times a year to four times, though the police know full well that new homes will spring back up within weeks of the cleanup. "They're little worker ants," says Lt. Edward Gluhan.

Though the police try to coordinate with the county Homeless Persons Health Project in an effort to get the people into some kind of rehabilitation or housing program, Georgina Ibarra, the client specialist assigned to Watsonville, knows that many either can't or won't leave.

"There's a couple things going on down there," she says. "There's your typical alcoholics. There are people that can't find affordable housing and are working. And you have also the gangs that are coming through and beating these people and taking their money, so they're forced to stay in the levee because of that."

No one is sure how to clear the camps. Some say cut down the trees and pave the river in concrete. "It's a great big can of worms from an environmental aspect. Do you remove brush and foliage that has some environmental value to help address the public safety issue?" says Lt. Darren Thompson. For now, the city is stuck in the same dance: The people build, the city destroys, the people build again.

ROBLES' first camp was made up of two boxy structures, the large one perhaps 10 feet by 15 feet, built on risers up off the muddy river's edge, tarps and heavy blankets tied with yellow and blue twine over a frame of thick tree branches. Inside the air was stuffy but warmer than the cool spring breeze outside, and there were large mattresses with sheets and blankets. Robles scattered a few notices inside. A Mexican flag hung in the tree branches over chairs covered in crude gang graffiti. The two men at the entrance told Robles that the rest of the residents were out either looking for work or picking up recyclables. "They're waiting for fieldwork to start up again," said Robles. "I reminded them there's a shelter, but they said that's full."

Back on the Kobuta, Robles drove back up the path and on to the next camp. "That was a pretty typical camp," he said. "More on the clean side than some I've seen, really."

He visited three more campsites, relatively similar to the first, but each with a woman's touch--flowers in vases, makeshift kitchens, clotheslines. They had whole living room sets, couches, folding tables, coffee tables, bicycles, crutches, children's toys ("How the heck do they bring everything down here?" Robles muttered). They were decorated with images of La Virgen. One little structure made from wooden planks had the words "Primero dios"--"God first"-- written on the walls near a tacked-up centerfold.

There was a lot of garbage. Balled-up T-shirts, shattered beer bottles, toilet paper, underwear, condom wrappers, shopping carts pilfered from Safeway, a bucket with a dead fish floating in it. There was also a cornucopia of food sitting in the sun, in milk crates and on tables, some of it marked "Second Harvest"--canned pork, canned green beans, Campbell's Cream of Chicken Soup, Wonder Bread, box macaroni and cheese, Smucker's jam, lemons, orange juice, pinto beans, peanut butter, a Trader Joe's salad with pomegranate and blue cheese, yellowing broccoli, a wedge of Brie, chili, tostadas, bell peppers, potatoes, onions, Diet Coke, instant coffee, corn tacos, rice.

The people in the camps took the notices quietly--this happens every few months, they confirmed--though one man, ostensibly drunk, railed that he wanted to hear it from a judge. Robles told him he has to enforce city laws, even though he and the levee dwellers know that the houses will grow back in a matter of days.

"We just have to make sure they don't get as lavish as they do, like when they bring down the big furniture," said Robles as he prepared to return to the station. "It needs to be done. How healthy can it be for a human being to live down there? It's just not socially acceptable."

A FEW months later, Fernando Vega, the Watsonville-based outreach worker for Santa Cruz AIDS Project, walked through the grass, now brittle and yellow, to the camps with a canvas tote filled with travel size soaps, shampoos and condoms slung over one shoulder. By this time, the river had shriveled to only about 6 feet wide, crossable by a bridge fashioned out of wood pallets balanced precariously on top of shopping carts, their wheels embedded in the sand.

"Buenas tardes," called Vega, stepping gingerly across. "Buenas tardes," someone shouted back. A rooster with brilliant black and white plumage herded a small hen away from him as a half-dozen men and women came into view behind some trees, seated or lounging inside a two bedroom-type casita. Vega is one of the few outsiders they trust. He says it's because, like them, when he first came to Watsonville in 1989 he slept here too, for two months. "At first they wouldn't talk to me," he said. "But I know the feeling of being cold, of not having anything to eat. I understand."

To hear them tell it, Vega translating, the river life is a perfectly acceptable one.

"We are all a family," said 45-year-old Roberto Saldivar. "Everybody who lives here feels safe, we share everything. Everyone on the outside is selfish."

"If I have even one taco, I share it with everyone," said a man who goes by Jorge dressed in neat cowboy attire, a Natural Ice 40-ounce on the ground at the tips of his snakeskin boots. "Somos puros amigos." True friends.

"They're saying to leave them by themselves," said Vega. "The cops come down and take down the whole camp. It's really hard to find mattresses and everything."

"We are probably happier than anyone outside," said Jorge. "And we don't have to pay bills."

A very short, gregarious 38-year-old named Alicia Sanchez Andrade invited us into her shelter, giggling self-consciously as she tried to tidy up. "I'm embarrassed," she said in a bright but hoarse voice, throwing a blanket over one of the two mattresses inside. She smoothed her bright pink bedspread and sat. She was petite, her small features made up with heavy black eyeliner and bright red lipstick, doll-like. She wore large hoops earrings and a trendy newsboy cap.

Her home was warm, dry and clean. The floors were made of many soft layers of carpet. Sanchez Andrade had hung multiple clocks somehow from the tarp walls. At her bedside was a framed picture of her two married daughters, her 5-month-old granddaughter, pictures of the Virgin and an RCA stereo with a CD player and tape deck, which doesn't work without an electrical outlet. She even had a kind of guest bedroom adjacent to hers, a sparser tent with a mattress.

Sanchez Andrade is the camp cook. Each day she makes enough food for 15 to 20 people. That morning was pork, cheese tortillas and a green salad. She spends her days collecting recyclables, which can net her $15 or 20 dollars per day, then she cooks dinner over an open fire and goes to work at Los Gatitos, a bar on the Monterey County side of the river.

Sanchez Andrade said that after leaving an abusive husband in Mexico, she lived in town with her family but didn't get along with her mother.

"When I wanted to go out, she said don't go, don't do this, don't do that," she said. "I wanted to be free." She said she began to hang out on the river and decided that a lifestyle free from judgment, where she can drink and go out as much as she wants, is preferable.

"She likes this---the forest and trees. It reminds her of her hometown, Colima. That's how she was raised," translated Vega. "Todos los dias, bonitos, todos," she said. Every day is beautiful.

THAT'S not how Carlos Contreras, a 23-year-old immigrant from Michoacán in southern Mexico, remembers his year on the river. "At nighttime when everybody would be asleep, I would have time to think about what was happening to me and I would ask myself, 'What am I doing here?'" he said in Spanish. Pastor Gary Valenzuela translated as the two sat in the offices of Victory Outreach Ministry in Watsonville. "But then I would think, I don't care, I don't care. The following day it would start all over again. We drink and drink and drink and use drugs," he said.

When asked why he came to the United States four years ago, Contreras flashed a smile showing a couple of teeth tinged gray and said, "The American dream."

"For the most part, it's a working community," says Patricia Morales, executive director of Pajaro Valley Loaves & Fishes. "A lot of those people are working and sending money back home. It makes it very unique."

That includes, for instance, Miguel Maravilla, a 49-year-old man who came to Watsonville in 1980. An laconic man with deep lines in his face and a weary limp, he's been working and sending money back to his father and siblings in Zacatecas, Mexico, as much as $300 a month when the work is good. He said in better times he had a steady job with a contractor in Santa Cruz, but after the boss retired, he couldn't find steady work for a non-English speaker besides intermittent fieldwork. When he makes enough money, he rents a room. "It's not hard for me to leave," he said. "I want a house and a family. I'll work anywhere if they have a job for me."

When he has a job, like the two-month-long gig that just ended pruning apple trees, Maravilla says he wakes up at 5am, sometimes to his cell phone alarm, sometimes "with my head, thinking, 'I have to go to work,'" packs some of the camp's breakfast for lunch, and comes up from the riverbed to wait for a ride from a friend or from the majordomo, or foreman. Though he said he personally feels safe sleeping on the river, he said his money isn't, and he keeps it hidden along with anything of value, like his good shoes and clothing, at a friend's family's house.

Theft isn't the only thing faced by the campers, according to homeless services specialist Ibarra, though all the current residents strongly denied having been victimized by gang members. "The gangs are getting really strong there and are beating people up for money or alcohol or just for the heck of it," she said. "We also had a white guy posing as a volunteer for the sheriff. He was ripping clients off of their sleeping bags and bicycles and setting the camps on fire. He was racist, like being a Nazi."

In 2007 there were a total of 1,462 calls for service in the levee and in the area between the Pajaro River and Front Street, with 164 total crimes reported, 26 of them actually in the levee. In 2008, there were 144 total crimes. "We have a history of people in those camps being victimized," says Police Chief Medina. "People going in and messing with them and stealing their money and beating them up."

Contreras quickly discovered the dark side of life on the levee. He arrived in Watsonville intending to work and send money home, but he also had a drinking problem. After getting fired for missing work, Contreras tried to stay with family in Watsonville, but after they threw him out for drinking, he found himself at the levee.

"He would panhandle and steal for the drugs and food and alcohol that he needed," said Pastor Valenzuela, translating for Contreras. "[In his group,] they had some individuals who would wake up real early in the morning, like 2, 3 o'clock in the morning and go collect recyclables. They knew once they gave [Carlos] a fix, he'd be able to get up and go, and then he would go out and steal and he would probably get a little bit more money than recyclables."

Though it was generally frowned upon on the levee to steal, Contreras occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder. He said that while it was true that everyone shared what little they had, if he came back too often with nothing to contribute, the rest of the camp began to turn on him, and he started stealing after his increasingly haggard appearance made him an unsuccessful panhandler. There was a short-lived high point when Contreras was a drug dealer for an outside gang member, until he was caught giving away the cocaine and meth in exchange for favors.

"For a while he had everything, he had people who respected him, he had people that were protecting him, he had a girl over there," said Valenzuela. "The only reason they were with him was because he was giving them drugs. When the guy took the drugs [back], nobody was protecting him and they told him to get out."

Victory Outreach dispatches a small crew of reformed gang members and drug addicts to the levees nearly every Saturday. Though they only succeed in wooing someone away from the life maybe once every four months, it worked for Contreras, who said that after the outreach workers sat and prayed with him about a year and a half ago he couldn't stop thinking about leaving.

"He remembers leaving the levee and going to look for our church. He doesn't remember how he got there, but he saw a couple that used to live on the river, they're part of the church," said Valenzuela. "And he lay down and had an epileptic seizure. When he woke up, we took him into the Christian recovery home."

Now Contreras is working at an auto body shop and living in a home with other working people. "He has a lot of potential, maybe he could be a pastor down the line," said Valenzuela. On the levee, they still ask outreach workers about him. "They're happy he changed his life," said another church member, Alex Leonor. "But they think regardless, he's always going to be that drunk. That's the way they think."

ON another visit with SCAP worker Fernando Vega, it was easier to crack the facade of contentment. "Are you happy here?" Vega asked the same camp of people. The men considered it.

"We're not that happy," answered Saldivar. "We don't have any other place to go."

Someone mentioned Victory Outreach and produced their little green flier--"Cristo es la respuesta," it says--Christ is the answer. "I wanted to go," blurted 43-year-old Berta Olgin, a bedraggled woman in a tank top, her bra straps falling down as she swigs some kind of clear liquid out of an empty plastic candy jar. "They didn't accept her," translated Vega. "She said nobody can help her leave drugs and alcohol."

"I said, 'I want to go, I want to go,'" she said. "But he said I was too crazy."

Even Sanchez Andrade forgot about the "beautiful days" as soon as Vega began to ask her about her 40-year-old boyfriend Jose, smudging her eyeliner in a sudden flood of tears. He's been gone a month, she said, arrested for abusing her and locked up at the Rountree corrections facility in Watsonville. And though she denied it, Vega said, from what he knows, Sanchez Andrade is a sex worker.

"I've known her for years," he said. "I convinced her to protect herself; she started using condoms." Vega himself said he had his first sexual experiences on the levee, as a homeless 18-year-old. "It's really easy to find sex down there," he said. "When I was a teenager I thought when I had sex it would be like someone special, but it wasn't like that. It was because I needed money."

In the last few months, a palpable undercurrent of fear has gripped the encampment. In the yellow grass, halfway between the running path and the river, there's a makeshift memorial. The parks department has carefully cut the grass around it. There are bunches of fake flowers, a cross, a flag with the Virgin on it, some candles, and on top of an upside-down water jug someone left a penny and a quarter. This is where 44-year-old Jose Maria Barajas was stabbed to death on April 29.

"Oh," says Major Luis Martinez, director of the Salvation Army. "That's a sad story." Martinez was one of the last people to see Barajas, a short hazel-eyed man who kept a black puppy and had a voracious drinking habit, before he was stabbed in the torso and jugular and left bleeding in the grass. He said that Barajas had been living at the Salvation Army, staying sober and working for three or four weeks with his young son Jose Jr., or "Joey," before it happened.

"I heard [Joey's] dad had been jumped a week before. Gang members jumped him and took $200 dollars from him and he got into a fight with them," said Martinez. "[Barajas] was all bruised and he kept telling his son, 'This isn't the end of the story, I got to get even, I got to find them.'"

On the day he died, Barajas had his bicycle taken from him. He reported to the police that it was the same person who'd stolen his money days before. "Unknown with an AKA of 'El Diablito' took the victim's gray mountain bike by force near the Laundromat at E. Front St.," reads the police log for that day.

"That night when they came here, the son was saying, 'I'm afraid for my dad, he's been drinking,'" says Martinez. "It was a premonition that they may kill him. His son was right."

According to Martinez, while Joey stayed behind at the Salvation Army securing a bed for his pregnant teenage girlfriend, Barajas stormed out of the shelter, drunk, to find whoever had robbed him. By the time Joey caught up with him, at about 7:19pm, his father had already been stabbed, according to police. He died at Watsonville Community Hospital.

THE MURDER is still fresh in the minds of the homeless in Watsonville, though no one has identified the killer or named "El Diablito." A small group of men at the Salvation Army, skittish and unwilling to give names, said they're too scared to return to the levee and have been sleeping in cars. "I used to stay there," said one. "It's too dangerous." Another man on the levee said the police had been questioning them and taking pictures. "We've been scared," he said.

Sanchez Andrade, who said Barajas was a longtime friend, began to weep openly when she said her boyfriend is being questioned about the murder. "She was saying they were both drunk and arguing, but he said he didn't do it," said Vega. "She believes him. She's afraid. The cops are going to blame him for something he didn't do." She said Barajas used to camp with them, often. "He was a good friend, in his way, he was a good man," she said.

Sanchez Andrade wiped her face with her palm and produced a handwritten letter sent by her boyfriend. Vega skimmed it. "It's says he didn't do it," he read. "It says, 'I love you, wait for me.'"

Sanchez Andrade wiped her face a final time. "She's happy," Vega translated. "She said she doesn't think about the future. She doesn't even know if she'll live another day. She'd be happy if everybody had a job."

Outside the men drank and scraped the needles off cactus pads with the cap from a 40 to make nopales. The sun began its slow decent, still bright and hot, striping the earth with shadows. The camp was nearly empty now and quiet, save for the chirping of birds and hushed trickle of the dwindling river. The fieldworkers would be back soon, and Sanchez Andrade began to busy herself on the flimsy table near the fire pit, her kitchen. Though the black chicken sat nearby under a tree, the rooster was missing.

"One of the foxes came here and killed it," one man explained. "The chicken was lucky."

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