Note: The following is an opinion piece by Sandy Popko, owner of the former senior home property in Eureka that recently became overrun with unsanctioned tenants.
- Eureka Neighborhood Up In Arms As Former Senior Home Overrun by Alleged Squatters
- Judge Allows Eviction Proceedings to Continue Against Alleged Squatters at Former Senior Home
- Local Officials Meet With Angry Pine Hill Residents to Address Problems at Former Senior Home
- Landlord Agrees to Pay Off Alleged Squatters at Former Senior Home, Ending Months-long Property Dispute
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Finally, the day came at the Senior Care Home property. They were leaving. It was Oct. 31. Halloween.
I was nervous. What other tricks would the “tenants” have up their sleeves? The plan to exit was simple. They were to take the possessions that they wanted, sign the affidavit relinquishing control of the property, receive two months’ rent money and leave. If they returned, the police would take action.
It’s difficult calling them tenants. They had not paid any rent since June. We were told that our only hope at repossessing the property was a step-by-step eviction process. Money had been offered five months ago, but the “tenants” denied it, saying, “We’d like to wait and see what ideas our advocate has for us.” They probably knew then, perhaps coached by an advocate, that they could stay free of charge for months, manipulate us through the court system and still receive money in the end. Extortion is alive and well.
The “tenants” moved about through the grey, damp Halloween day dumping their stuff here and there. I kept questioning the process: “Will this really work? Will they really leave?” They had lied so many times. Their lawyer from Legal Services of Northern California was there. Was he the mystery advocate who had counseled them? The lawyer circulated inside and outside the building. His own truck was being packed with some of their possessions. He had become their coach and mover.
I wondered how the Pine Hill neighbors were feeling. Hopefully, they felt relief. The neighbors had experienced months of anguish, often feeling jailed in their own homes, afraid of what might happen outside. It was impossible not to feel continual anger, frustration, worry and fear. The “tenants’” obscene language, yelling and screaming was a daily occurrence, day and night.
Drug use and dealing wasn’t confined to inside the building. They had even tried recruiting a teenage neighbor to try drugs. Over five to six months the police were called upwards of 80 times. Often, the calls were from the “tenants” themselves due to domestic violence inside the building. When their “friends” started showing up in big numbers, illegal activity increased. Gunshots necessitated calls to the police.
The neighbors had seen and heard about the injuries of one “tenant” due to an attack dog. There were initially 15 “tenants” and at least 10 dogs. The dogs often seemed to echo their masters’ intensity and strife. One young neighbor who lived a few houses from the property told me he wasn’t about to let his children walk to school. It was too dangerous. His car ended up being vandalized in the night.
Frustration was heightened daily due to mass quantities of garbage generated by the “tenants” and their friends. It was routine to remove a ton of garbage one day followed by a storm of garbage the following day. The quantity was mind boggling. Garbage became the focal point of continual discussions with environmental services and others. The expectation, I guess, from our governmental entities was that we should provide daily cleanup services for everyone. Throughout the months, the “tenants” settled in — creating more garbage and more rodents. As the “tenants” were relieved of any type of responsibility, they gained more power.
Their power yielded an increase in nifty, illegal entrepreneurial endeavors. The police had sanctioned visits from the “homeless” who were kicked out of “the devil’s playground.” We were told that we had NO right to trespass this new group because, “the tenants have their right to have friends.” This permissive stance made it possible for the entire group to make deals, in the form of money (renting space at the property), trading for drugs, stealing bicycles or unregistered cars (selling them for parts) or other collaborative efforts. Their empire expanded rapidly. The parking lot became so full of old cars, trucks and RVs that the new group started spilling out into the street. Garbage was flowing everywhere.
What’s interesting, in this philosophy of welcoming the “homeless” to our neighborhoods, is that there is never any expectation that they should clean up their own mess. Vehicles would eventually get tagged but weeks would pass before the county removed them. The 15 original tenants had increased to unbelievable numbers who squatted both inside and outside the building. They spread their garbage over 8,000 sq. feet of space and more than an acre of land.
On Oct. 31, their departure day, I was so anxious, nervous and sad as I reviewed the damages to the property. They had cut out 4-by-12 old growth redwood flooring from a big storage shed in the back. I clearly knew that our bogged down, expensive legal system was partially responsible. The police knew that these particular “tenants” and their friends were trouble. Many had prior arrests due to robbery, assaults, drug connections and a litany of other issues. We were told that the only way to stop the carnage was through standard eviction procedures.
Further complicating the process was the legal aid attorney for the “tenants.” His zeal generated demurrers and appeals that a normal tenant/landlord situation typically doesn’t entail to that scale. Court dates would be set, then changed and then mistakes would happen. The longer the process took the more emboldened this group became, and their network for illegal activity increased. This is a crucial element involving future public policy. The current policies and procedures stall healthy outcomes and crime increases.
Crime is crime. I always thought that our taxpayer dollars were there to protect us, to help us. You can imagine my frustration when I found out that the police were called during the cutting up of the shed floor. They declined to do their job, stating that it was a civil matter. Evidently, the perpetrator was visiting a relative — so I guess, crime isn’t crime if you’re a visitor.
On August 16, our county supervisor, Rex Bohn, organized a plan with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and the police to help relocate all the “tenants” to a new living space. That morning we waited in the parking lot of the property feeling healthy optimism for the plan. It seemed, at the time, a sane idea for relocation. But, in the eleventh hour these public entities had changed their mind and did not show up. What the “tenants” did, as we waited for help, was yell at us. “Get off our property or we’ll call the police.” They did call the police — and the police did show up. We were the troublemakers. They spent their valuable police time lecturing us. Health and Human Services never showed. They had decided that it didn’t look good for them if we were there.
One of the most difficult aspects of the past few months was the daily realization that all the bureaucracies that we pay for as taxpayers didn’t help. When we have a fire prevention program intact, why is it not accessible? The group was unstable. I was haunted. The building could have burned up, jeopardizing the entire the neighborhood.
With the closing of the “devil’s playground,” an opening existed for another refuge — it became Pine Hill. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office knew what was happening. Why couldn’t they help us? Are the police afraid of litigation? We were lucky. No one was hurt in the neighborhood. But is this how we want our prevention programs to work?
If housing the homeless is a policy that continues in Humboldt, and we know that their garbage is a recurring problem, why doesn’t Environmental Services help property owners rather than chastise them? Seriously, are we as taxpayers supposed to clean up after them? Why are we paying taxes? The situation on our property was so far beyond the typical landlord/tenant relationship. Our property served as a homeless shelter for months and everyone knew it.
There was one public official that worked for us. His name is Rex Bohn. He fielded hundreds of calls from neighbors. He knows that the policies that exist on the West Coast set us up for these types of disastrous situations. If we are serious about creating wholesome communities for our children and grandchildren, we need more than a nod, more than a fake smile behind a desk of useless paperwork; we need honesty.
We need our policymakers to realize that the citizens of Humboldt who work so diligently for their community are not the bad people. These are the people who can turn difficult situations around. These are compassionate people who want justice for the purposes of a peaceful community. Hardworking citizens, young families and aging ones, need to be a part of future planning. Young families need to know that they can invest in their community, their future, that they can own rentals and county officials won’t turn their backs.
I will never forget after the first Outpost article on our situation, a member of the local Rotarians emailed me and said, “The Rotarians want to help you. Can we help you clean up the place after you gain repossession?” It was the first time in months that my disappointment in Humboldt County lifted. Thank you, Rotarians. You renewed my faith.
Of course, there are different scenarios involving the homeless. Our experience was gruesome. On Oct. 31, destruction and squalor defined every single room in my facility. I do not want others to experience what we’ve gone through.
A few days after the “tenants” left Pine Hill, the Sheriff closed the homeless encampments due to a drastic increase in crime. What a surprise! They allowed the Pine Hill encampment to continue for months. As citizens, do we want to continue with knee-jerk policies regarding the homeless?
Who are the true homeless that need legitimate help? Can we figure out a definition that works better than literally dumping everyone into the same homeless category? The “tenants” at Pine Hill taught me that they didn’t really care about a housing space. They wanted control, power and money to do exactly what they wanted any time of day or night.
Why is the trend moving toward more and more crime being handled in the civil arena? Isn’t that a potentially dangerous policy? What can our county afford? Will our help continue for those who consistently break the law and deal in drugs? Will there be honest assessments of what works and what fails? Are “encampments” of any form effective? Is escalation of abhorrent “mob behavior” and crime the result of these encampments? Doesn’t a history of criminal behavior matter, when figuring out housing? Public policy depends on honesty. I believe, when we make decisions, compassion and common sense can work together.
All my life, I’ve received guidance from my experience as a Navy nurse. During the Vietnam War, our country was instituting the draft to recruit young men for the service. The men who the nurses trained came from all walks of life. Many of these guys had just graduated, or barely graduated and some had their master’s degrees. The enlightening lesson for me was that 95 percent of the time all these guys functioned superbly. They responded to the expectations that were set for their performance in the medical corps. In return, they gained confidence and success.
There isn’t a thing wrong with having expectations for behavior. Life entails the giving of good as well as the receiving of good. When that principle becomes so lopsided and some people do all the giving and there is absolutely no expectation but taking from others, the human soul is threatened. Adversity and discontent is fostered. What happens to a society when there isn’t any expectation for the human conscience to show itself, redeem itself? Will more and more people become devoid of basic decency?
Let’s fix this issue.
Thank you, family and friends, for all your support. I love you so much.
Thank you, Rex Bohn and Lee Figas and son. You guys didn’t stop.
Thanks to our lawyer who knew about the details.
Thank you, dear Pine Hill neighbors. My heart will forever be grateful for your courage and determination.
Thanks, Outpost, for highlighting this important matter.