A homeless man leans up against the “Welcome to Calexico” sign at Border Friendship Park on Thursday, Feb. 11. As Calexico City Council members Raul Ureña and Gloria Romo led several residents on discussions about transitional housing for the homeless and homeless farmworkers in the city, several locations were discussed, including establishing a permanent encampment at the small park near the border. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
(Updated at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, to reflect that issue would not be on the Calexico City Council agenda for Feb. 17.)
CALEXICO — The proposed establishment of two transitional housing encampments on city-owned property is just the kind of urgent and sweeping action that is needed to address homelessness in the city of Calexico.
That, at least, was one of the messages that emerged from a lengthy virtual community forum Calexico City Council members Raul Ureña and Gloria Romo hosted on Wednesday, Feb. 10, to discuss the matter of homelessness among farmworkers and others.
As envisioned, two distinct transitional housing encampments are being proposed by Ureña and supported by Romo. One would service the needs of homeless farmworkers, while the other would be designated for the chronically homeless.
Though the idea is to establish the encampments on a temporary basis, there is a strong possibility that, if approved by the City Council, they would remain a permanent fixture in the city.
“You can be assured that if Calexico doesn’t do anything about housing, there will always be homeless,” Ureña said during the forum.
A proposal to establish the encampments was expected to be placed on the City Council’s action agenda for possible approval on Feb. 3 and Wednesday, Feb. 17, but failed to materialize.
While Ureña was critical of city administration during the Feb. 3 regular council meeting because the transitional housing issue had not been placed on that meeting’s action agenda, he was more deferential when the Feb. 17 meeting agenda also failed to include the proposal.
“I’m not upset because honestly I’m not ready,” Ureña said on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
Instead, Ureña is now in the process of assessing the input he had received during the Feb. 10 forum and is hoping to have a resolution regarding the transitional housing issue on the council’s March 3 action agenda.
The purpose of the Feb. 10 community forum was to solicit input from community members regarding the city’s homelessness issues and take suggestions about the encampments’ potential location and supplementary amenities. It attracted more than a dozen participants, with those who spoke offering support for the overall concept and suggestions about how best to proceed.
For starters, Ureña said he would like for several travel trailers that are in the possession of the city to be placed at the site of the proposed encampments.
The trailers would not be used to house occupants of the encampments, but instead allow them to use the trailers’ restrooms, showers, and kitchens.
Lights, potable water, a community center, mental health and addiction services, a possible community garden, and a syringe disposal program would round out the amenities Ureña said are essential to include in any such encampment.
Ideally, the site would also include a parking lot that would provide individuals who live out of their vehicles a safe and secure location as well.
In the absence of any travel trailers, Ureña said the city has at its disposal thousands of tents that could be used as transitional housing for the targeted populations.
Besides the chronically homeless, supporters of the initiative are hoping to assist homeless farmworkers who can’t afford housing in the Imperial Valley, or who reside in Mexicali but choose to remain stateside overnight and unsheltered to avoid prolonged border crossing times and then idling about on city streets while awaiting their workday to begin.
Much of the nearly two-hour forum was devoted to identifying potential locations for the proposed encampments. Participants agreed that Border Friendship Park appeared to be one of the more feasible options, though some concerns arose about the park’s relatively small space possibly hindering the ambitious plans discussed during the forum.
Ureña said that it would be possible to close the western half of Paulin Avenue, which abuts the park, to through traffic, while still allowing motorists to use the eastern half of the one-way street. He further explained that such street closures could be an option elsewhere as well.
“If we need to create space for the homeless, we can do it by closing streets, too,” Ureña said.
Nor was the encampments’ potential establishment the only urgent matter of the night. Romo made clear that one of her top priorities is — and has been — the reopening of public restrooms in the downtown area.
Specifically, the city needs to reopen public restrooms at Border Friendship Park and next to the Valley Orthopedic Clinic on First Street, she said.
Their closure has been prompting farmworkers to go to the restroom in the streets and alleys of downtown and presents a health and safety hazard for the public, she said.
While she acknowledged that the city currently doesn’t have the funds needed to repair the public restrooms on First Street, the City Council should nonetheless have an opportunity to vote on the matter and not be hesitant to invest in such a project.
“It smells real bad when you pass there,” Romo said.
Romo’s other top priority has been to try to establish a facility that would provide shelter and amenities for farmworkers who cross daily from Mexicali. Toward that end, she said she has been speaking with local farm-labor contractors, some of whom have not only expressed support for the idea, but Romo’s insistence that they contribute financially to its creation, as well.
“The contractors would have an easier time of picking up and dropping off people,” she said.
Romo further informed the forum’s participants that she planned to speak with the city’s attorney to determine if the city has the authority to impose fees on farm-labor contractors that pick up and drop off workers in and around the downtown area. Those proposed fees would go toward the funding of the farmworker center.
Typically, farm-labor contractors have been picking up and dropping off workers in a few downtown businesses’ parking lots through longstanding arrangements between those parties, Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said on Thursday, Feb. 11.
Though it remains to be determined whether the city can legally target contractors for using city streets to load and unload passengers, such enforcement action has the potential of negatively impacting the local agricultural industry, Gerardo said.
Nor does the department have the staffing needed to take such a potential enforcement action on a daily basis, he said.
A more appropriate course of action, which Gerardo said he had personally conveyed to Ureña, is to have the city work with farm-labor contractors, the United Farm Workers union, and the Imperial County Farm Bureau to try to establish the type of facility that the advocates are calling for.
As a lifelong Calexico resident and the son of a parent who had previously worked in the fields, Gerardo said he, too, is in support of such a facility.
Such a place could be situated on Cesar Chavez Boulevard and allow for farmworkers from Mexicali to park onsite as well. The city would likely have to adjust existing traffic patterns to allow the workers’ vehicles access to southbound Chavez Boulevard, which currently is prohibited, Gerardo said.
“It’s doable,” he said. “But it is something that has got to be planned.”
During the Feb. 10 virtual forum, a few other participants had equally suggested that the best path forward is one that is inclusive of all stakeholders’ concerns and has realistic goals.
Calexico resident Alexis Rangel said it would be wise to identify potential funding sources apart from the city’s coffers and to notify the community of those monies to help ease any apprehensions about the financially strained city taking on added expenditures.
“Even big cities find this difficult to do even though they have bigger budgets,” Rangel said.
As a parent herself, she also cautioned against the placement of any encampment near routes frequented by young schoolchildren. Advocates, she said, may also benefit from initially proposing a scaled-down version of the encampments as a pilot project that, if successful, could more easily earn the community’s support for future plans.
“I know those are things we may not want to hear, but they’re questions that are going to come up,” Rangel said.