Exploring Garberville’s Transient Problem

by Daniel Mintz, September 25, 2013

Following a Sheriff’s Office-escorted tour of Garberville’s transient camps and hangouts, Southern Humboldt Supervisor Estelle Fennell has reported that an effort to launch police foot patrols is underway.

Fennell toured the Garberville area’s streets and transient hubs on Sept. 13 and displayed photographs documenting it at the Sept. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting. Garberville merchants had implored supervisors last month to apply policing pressure to a situation they say is increasingly intolerable.

Fennell is well-aware of Garberville’s transient-related sanitation and social problems and the tour delved into them with the assistance of Sheriff’s Lt. Ken Swithenbank and Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Gomes.

When they met at the Garberville Sheriff’s Substation, a transient woman approached them and asked for mental health assistance, Fennell said. The woman was referred to the county’s mental health outreach officer.

From there, the group moved to the tour’s first stop, the Garberville Cemetery. There were scary things going on but not because of the presence of the dead.

A group of people from Texas were apparently camping out. “They were sleeping next to the graves and there was a hole dug in the ground next to a grave with feces in it,” Fennell said. Referring to photo of a man standing over a burial site, Fennell said he was urinating on a grave.

The desecrating campers “were not looking for jobs, they did not consider themselves homeless and they were just hanging out,” she continued. She said they were told that what they were doing was “very disrespectful.”

The tour’s next stops revealed the prevalence of illegal camping. “We went down to a place known variously as ‘Hippie Hill’ or ‘Tweeker Hill’ and what you see here is a fire pit and it’s right in the middle of an area that has very dry underbrush,” said Fennell, adding that the area had recently been cleared by sheriff’s deputies.

She said there have been “numerous fires in the Garberville area, in these kinds of locations.” There were several campgrounds in the area, Fennell continued, and “all the people that were there were from out of state.”

One group had come from France, she said.

Fennell also described the conditions of a camp underneath the Bear Creek Bridge. “Under that bridge, there was trash, graffiti, feces in the slope above the river — just generally a very disturbing situation,” she said.

Later, Fennell’s group encountered a young woman from San Diego standing on the street holding a sign that read, “Looking for work — indoor or outdoor.” The deputies were “concerned about her just going up into the hills with someone she didn’t know,” Fennell related.

After talking with residents and merchants, Fennell realized that “we just scratched the surface” of the situation.

In conclusion, Fennell distinguished between people who need and would accept help and those whose lifestyles clash with community standards. “I saw a great deal of compassion and understanding among the locals but they’re basically weary of dealing with disrespect from visitors who are not really contributing anything to the community,” she said.

She noted that Garberville is unincorporated and lacks a dedicated police department. But Fennell closed her presentation by saying that the sheriff’s deputies told her “that they were hoping to increase foot patrols in downtown Garberville and Redway in the coming weeks.”

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