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Leaving the Bowl: Napans face removal from longtime homeless camp

About a dozen Napans have lived in a homeless community called "the Bowl" for years. This week they had to move out. All tents and structures will be demolished and the area cleared. Take a look at the scene, and the people, here.

Kelly Hampton is used to helping others. She works as a personal care provider. She’s a dedicated mother and friend. She feeds the hungry in her “neighborhood.” She even acts as the eyes for her dog Buddy, who’s mostly blind.

Now she's trying to help herself. 

She's leaving the Bowl. 

“I’m scared to death,” Hampton admitted. Losing her home, one that she built from scratch, is almost too much to bear.

For the past two years Hampton, along with her son Joey, have lived at the homeless camp between the Napa River and the OLE Health parking lot. Called the Bowl, it has been home to as many as several dozen people, tents and makeshift dwellings.

To make sure the site can be used for flood control and allow planned maintenance in the channel of the Napa River, the Bowl residents were told to leave by Nov. 17, said a statement from local agencies including the city and county of Napa. 

Residents were offered reserved beds at the Napa winter homeless shelter on the Expo grounds on Third Street.

On Tuesday morning, Hampton and her son and friends began moving her belongings from her camp to a storage facility on Jackson Street. Abode Services, which runs the south Napa homeless shelter, prepaid a number of months of rent.

Hampton had mixed emotions about the change, she said.

On one hand, “It’s a huge relief,” to finally be leaving the homeless encampment, Hampton said. “I hate it up there at the Bowl,” she said, citing the lack of water, toilets, power and security. 

At the same time, the unknown of the move is frightening. 

“I don’t know how it’s going to work with my hours and my job," she said of living in the shelter. What about if she gets off work before the shelter opens? Will she have any privacy or personal space? What about her dog? She's also very afraid of contracting COVID-19 at the shelter, said Hampton. 

Two years fly by 

Hampton, who grew up on Third Street in Napa, said she never planned on living at the Bowl for a day, let alone two years.

She became homeless after losing her lease at a mobile home park. Another blow came when her partner died. Hampton eventually found her way to the no man's land of the Bowl. Then she lost her job. The months continued to pass. 

Her son Joey, who is also homeless, built his own wooden structure next to hers. They created a small community in their immediate camp area.

There was a fire pit. Signs and decorations. A cooler for perishable food. Yes, there were some troublemakers, but Hampton avoided them as best she could. 

The Bowl became a community, said Joey. People were neighbors.

Last week, when he heard the news that the Bowl would be shut down, Joey lashed out fiercely. From inside his home, he yelled and cursed furiously about the closure and how it would affect him and his mother.

One week later, Joey seemed more resigned to the move.

“It’s a much-needed thing for everyone up here,” he admitted. “I’ve been wanting to get my mom out of here for so long, I’m glad to go."

“I don’t like living like this,” said Joey. Yet at the same time, because he made his home at the Bowl so comfortable, and lived there for so long, “It’s kind of almost enabled me to continue to be OK with it.” If it wasn’t for this eviction, it’s possible that “I could be here forever,” he acknowledged.

He just wishes he had more choices — and more time to move.

“It sucks that the ultimatum (is) a shelter or a tent,” he said. Yes, the shelter offers a roof, food, water, showers, and electricity. “But there’s all the rules also.”

He doesn't have much to feel optimistic about, said Joey. "I don’t really see much light at the end of the tunnel.”

Joey said the Bowl community always suffered from many misconceptions as well as the stigma of homelessness.

“People are shocked when they come up here and look,” he admitted.

“I’m embarrassed every time somebody looks over here and takes pictures,” said Joey. He feels ashamed. “It’s like I’m being judged.”

Sometimes he can’t help but react. “I’ve heckled people,” and yelled at them to go away, he said. “If I was on their front porch doing that to their house, they wouldn’t like that very much.”

Another longtime Bowl resident is Kyle Legg, 28. This native Napan said he’s been homeless for about eight years.

“I don’t understand the sudden, abrupt need for us to immediately vacate,” said Legg during an interview this past Friday at the Bowl. “It’s unfair. I don’t think just sending us all to the winter shelter is going to work,” he said.

“There’s people with PTSD, anxiety, mental health disorders,” living in the Bowl, he said. Legg said he’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

According to Legg, aside from the death of one resident, Chuck Hughes, “there’s really been no problems here."

“I thought this was a great resolution for the problem,” of homelessness.

What did Legg think of the help offered by Abode Services?

“It’s cool. I appreciate everything they’ve done so far,” but “it wouldn’t be beneficial for all the residents who live here.” According to Legg, “I think some people like living outside."

He didn’t plan on going to the winter shelter, said Legg.

"It’s not a solution for me. Too many people. It’s too confined." He’ll just move his tent somewhere else — “The warmest driest spot I can find.”

Will McHaney spent the past week loading his belongings at his camp at the Bowl into the back of his truck.

“I got to outfit the back of this to sleep in, and I’m going to put a solar panel on top,” he said.

McHaney was trying to figure out the location of his Abode-provided storage facility so he could move his belongings as well.

Yes, he knew about the free blue moving bags provided by Abode but he said he didn’t want to use them because anyone who saw him with the blue bags would know he was homeless. 

Another homeless man, who goes by the name Duck, said he had lived behind the former Borreson's News Services newspaper building on Soscol Avenue for several years before he found himself at the Bowl.

Duck said he previously lived in Wisconsin where he owned his own home. He has two children and worked at a machine operator at a cheese factory.

“I was living a clean and sober life, but started smoking pot again and drinking beer again,” and that started a downward spiral into homelessness.

On Tuesday Duck said he had a lead on getting housing at a new complex on Soscol Avenue in Napa called the Manzanita Family Apartments.

“I’m also working on SSI for my neck and back,” said Duck.

Demolition begins

By Monday morning, some demolition of the vacant Bowl camps had begun. Front-loaders broke down walls and grabbed at pieces of wood, old tents, furniture, and other materials.

“It’s sad,” said Brandon Gardner, the city’s homeless outreach specialist.

Gardner thought there were about 15 people still living at the Bowl as of early this week.

During an interview at the Bowl on Tuesday, Gardner said “My hope is people can get to the (winter) shelter and we can get them to new housing. The more new housing we got the better off we are. In the meantime, we have the shelter. Which is good.”

There was a space reserved at the winter shelter for everyone at the Bowl camp, he said.

“Our team has been out there to help individuals by providing information, support, and whatever else they might need," said Scott Wagner, Abode Services' director of housing and services, northern region. "We’re doing our best to answer questions and assist former residents of the Bowl and surrounding areas during what is a very difficult time for them.” 

According to the Nov. 8 release, the city and county have collectively invested “over $10 million to upgrade and expand shelter accommodations and fund permanent housing projects for clients exiting homelessness.”

“In April 2022, 32 new year-round shelter beds will become available to coincide with the anticipated seasonal closure of the Winter Shelter. These newly available year-round beds will be prioritized for the clients who utilize the Winter Shelter,” said the release.

Additionally, the city and county have partnered with Burbank Housing and applied under Project Homekey, a new statewide program, to create 54 permanent housing units for people exiting homelessness by September 2022. We expect this application to be funded, said the release.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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