Published Feb. 3, 2022
By EMMA BROWN and SAFIA BOUHAJA
Just out of sight of the patrons of The Crossroads Shopping Center, a collection of homeless people reside in an encampment next to the Carmel River, living in close quarters before dispersing each morning to panhandle nearby. A walk through this settlement illuminates the alternate reality of Carmel: Though the town prides itself on its image of luxury, sleeping in sandy ditches surrounded by trash long discarded is a reality for some community members.
Cars and patrons passing through the Carmel Rancho, Barnyard and Crossroads shopping centers will likely notice homeless people holding signs on street corners, yet once they drive the half-mile into Carmel-by-the-Sea, none of these people are to be seen. While the homeless population in Carmel is fairly limited, those living outdoors elect to conduct their business on the outskirts of downtown in an attempt to avoid trouble with the Carmel Police Department.
One woman who lives outdoors with her husband in Carmel explains that asking for donations in the downtown district is far more difficult because the rules are stricter in the tourist-packed area. Around the Carmel Rancho Shopping Center, the police rarely, if ever, interrupt the day-to-day routines of panhandlers.
“Carmel’s a pretty laid-back town,” says Ted, a homeless person living in Carmel. “There’s not a lot of problems with the police here, and people will usually give money or food.”
Municipal codes of the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea dictate that sitting or lying on sidewalks in a manner that might disrupt traffic, camping or doing any act connected with human habitation on public areas, as well as erecting a tent on public property, are all strictly prohibited. Because of these ordinances, the city’s police department has grounds to remove transients from downtown.
Outside the bounds of the city lies the greater Carmel area, where municipal codes have no judicial weight.
“Like in any city, Carmel will pass ordinances in order to not have a very visible homeless population because it does drive people away from their businesses, unfortunately,” says Brian Bajari, a local pastor who has worked closely with the homeless community over the years. “There are forces at play in these kinds of vacation and honeymoon towns where people just don’t want to see homelessness.”
The limited homeless population in Carmel can also be attributed to a lack of resources for the area’s homeless community.
“There are fewer places in Carmel for the homeless to congregate where it’s not so obvious,” says Robin McCrae, CEO of Community Human Services, a nonprofit organization committed to helping homeless youth and families. “There may not be as many services available in Carmel as there are in some of the larger communities in the county.”
Because of larger homeless populations elsewhere in Monterey County, many corporations have opened permanent shelters in larger cities such as Monterey, Seaside and Salinas. Through the IHELP Organization, an interfaith short-term lodging and meal service program, numerous churches in the Carmel area open their doors to homeless people.
In Monterey County’s 2019 homeless census, only 6 transients were reported to be living in Carmel, a sharp contrast to Monterey’s reported 204. Yet despite the lack of resources in Carmel, many homeless people elect to remain in the city because of its profitability.
“I’ve been coming out for two years every day in the morning, and I couldn’t believe it,” says Michael Bruno, a 61-year-old former Carmel High school student who now lives outdoors. “So I sign over in the middle of the road over there (on the lane divider). Over there, you can make $100 a day, people are handing me twenties on twenties. You’ve gotta hit up the rich people in Carmel.”
Because of the wealthy demographic of the greater Monterey area, affordable housing is a rarity, making it far more difficult for transients to move off of the streets and into a permanent residence.
“There’s very little affordable housing and that includes low-income rental units,” McCrae explains. “There’s been an increase in the number of Emergency Housing Vouchers and Housing Support Vouchers, but there’s also the challenge of working with landlords to get them to accept those vouchers as the only form of payment for their rent.”
Emergency Housing Vouchers assist at-risk individuals and families with locating affordable housing and providing financial support. To qualify for an EHV, one must be at risk for homelessness, recently or currently homeless, or fleeing from situations of domestic violence. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in Monterey County 269 EHVs have been awarded, but only 6 EHV units are currently being leased.
“Some of our numbers have dropped in the last few months because of federal and state services that have become available, but there’s no real knowing if those services will continue or dry up,” says Tony Finnegan, the board chair for IHELP.
Though EHVs are available, transients living in Monterey County report struggling to get a voucher.
“I’m trying to get off my feet, but I go to the Welfare Office and they keep telling me that I’m not eligible for vouchers,” says Jennifer Hill, who lives outdoors in Monterey. “I’ve gone almost everywhere, I’ve left messages. I need help, I need an advocate, social services is a big deal, and I can’t do it by myself.”
After seven months on a waiting list, Oscar, who lived outdoors in Monterey with his wife for five years, recently moved into an apartment after receiving an EHV.
“We were staying on the beach in a tent for months and just praying,” Oscar says. “We had a Section 8 voucher, and they don’t apply to two-bedroom apartments, only one-bedroom apartments, and we kept getting calls for two-bedrooms. Finally, we got a blessing and got an apartment in Marina.”
For many transients, the lack of affordable housing in Carmel leads them to stay in other areas of Monterey County. However, some will reside outside of Carmel and return to the area during the day to panhandle. In Bruno’s case, most days begin with catching a bus to the Carmel Rancho Shopping Center and spending the day on a street corner flying a sign, before returning to a shelter elsewhere in the county.
While the demographic of Carmel is primarily affluent and middle-class residents, those living outdoors encourage the citizens of Carmel to view them as neighbors rather than intruders.
“I try to shift the language from ‘homeless’ to our ‘outdoor living neighbor,’” Bajari says. “ It’s a different frame of mind. When we see the people on the street as our neighbors, that’s a different kind of mindset. They’re our neighbors. They live here. We live with them. They’re part of our fabric.”
For those looking to donate to homeless shelters for families and youth, Community Human Services accepts donations on chservices.org.