Imagine the cruel irony of the name of this city. Eureka. "I have found it!”
Two hundred and seventy miles north of San Francisco located along Humboldt Bay and surrounded by the redwood forest is the city of Eureka, California. Once prosperous with an economy built on gold mining, logging, and fishing, the main drag through the city of roughly 30,000, Route 101, is now littered with destitute individuals begging for money. Some were born and raised in Humboldt County; others made the journey from across the United States. The majority struggle with substance abuse and some type of mental illness, though a few have had an unfortunate run of bad luck and ended up on the streets.
The once prosperous motels that line the 101 are now dilapidated, functioning as temporary housing for hundreds of people on state and federal disability. The now abandoned lumber mill located on a salt and freshwater marsh that lies behind the town’s only shopping mall, has become an illegal homeless refugee camp. Safely hidden from harassment by the public and police, a form of anarchy and street ethics govern the encampments.
I set out to explore the lives of some of the close to 600 homeless individuals in Eureka, California. I wanted to understand their day-to-day struggle living off Route 101 and to understand how the community’s resources were being utilized. My end goal was to help the community see what is going on behind these closed motel doors, in the hidden camps, in the life of the person flying the sign on the corner.
What I found was a cycle of stagnation.
Each morning they wake up stuck in a desperate struggle to feed their addictions – alcohol, heroin, methamphetamine, and nicotine. Charities offer daily free meals and showers. Police are called for public drunkenness, loitering, and camping violations. Ambulances are dispatched for fights, withdrawals, and welfare checks.
Monthly disability money is spent on escape from the street - through drugs, run down motel rooms, or tickets out of town.
The cycle is hard to break, but there is help available for those who want it. Unfortunately, most don’t. They are cleaned up on respite in the hospital or jail only to return to the day-to-day life encrusted in grime out on the street.