WATSONVILLE, Calif. (KION) An increase in the homeless population has been felt across the state of California, but residents and business owners have seen a notable increase in the downtown Watsonville area.
With the statewide eviction moratorium set to expire on Sept. 30, many advocates are concerned the homeless problem could soon be exacerbated.
Conchita Gonzalez has owned Conchita's Ice Cream at Watsonville's Plaza Vigil for the past 24 years. She says in the last year, she and her workers have seen an increase in the number of homeless camping out across the street.
"We have a lot of problems here at the park. A lot of people come and they lay down and they just make themselves at home," Conchita said.
Sometimes people can get aggressive, and they also have concerns because many families visit the plaza's businesses.
"Some of them just run around screaming and yelling, coming through the store with their little shopping carts," said Martha Gonzalez, who works with Conchita. "They demand things that are given to them for free and sometimes we do help them out with whatever we can but then they want it to be like a routine. They want to come and yell at us and intimidate us.”
Watsonville Police said last month they saw a 51% increase in the amount of calls related to unhoused individuals, compared to August 2020.
The department's Crisis Assessment Response and Engagement (CARE) Team works with a mental health provider to help offer services to those experiencing homelessness. They also do outreach to businesses. But they can only help those who accept their services.
"There was a Supreme Court ruling that makes it illegal for law enforcement to site individuals who are camping. There are city ordinances that prohibit individuals from blocking pathways, so our officers will address that, but we can’t site an individual for being homeless. It’s not a crime," said Watsonville Police Public Information Officer Michelle Pulido.
Last year's homeless count was postponed due to the pandemic, which means advocates won't know exactly how much the homeless population has increased until January of 2022. That's assuming the count will resume next year.
Mike Johnson, Executive Director of Pajaro Valley Shelter Services in Watsonville, says 2,167 people in Santa Cruz County were experiencing homelessness during the 2019 count. He says that was actually a decrease.
"The county made a lot of progress over the past 10 years. But now comes the pandemic and the economic fallout from that," said Johnson. "We really do expect to see much higher numbers the next count. Right now all we have is our own eyes and ears. If you’ve driven around Santa Cruz County or Watsonville or any of the towns, you can see with your own eyes that homelessness is increasing a lot."
The state's eviction moratorium ending on Thursday could exacerbate the problem.
"It's a crisis that existed before the pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic has brought resources and attention to this issue that weren't there before, which is a good thing until those resources run out," said Johnson. "Meanwhile, rents continue to go up. Inflation continues to increase. Wages continue to be stagnant. So you can see the long term outlook for homelessness for families and single adults is not good unless we build a lot more housing."
There are currently two affordable housing projects in the works in Watsonville, one on Freedom Blvd. and another on Miles Ln. Those projects will hopefully bring some form of relief to Santa Cruz County.