Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 | Pablo Payan is worried about his future. A recent visit to church provided little solace.

Payan attended mass last Sunday hoping to learn more about rumors that he might soon be forced to vacate McGonigle Canyon, an undeveloped tract of land that bisects the upscale neighborhoods of Rancho Peñasquitos and Carmel Valley. It’s where the 20-year-old migrant worker and 100 to 200 other men make humble homes amongst the gravel and brush.

Hidden amidst eucalyptus trees, agaves, thistles and reeds, their shanties – constructed of scraps of wood, plastic and sometimes much less – might not seem like much to lose. But for Payan, this canyon, which he rarely leaves, is literally everything.

For the last three years, he’s made his living working for an adjacent tomato farm he calls “Rancho del Diablo” – The Devil’s Ranch. He sends the bulk of his meager earnings home to support his brothers, sisters and parents in Oaxaca, Mexico. He’s worshiped in a makeshift chapel in the canyon and spent his free time here resting and seeking relief from the heat and cold. This hardscrabble stretch of land north of State Route 56 is his world, and it’s about to be turned upside down.

In the coming weeks, city officials are planning to force Payan and the other residents of McGonigle Canyon to move, pushing the fate of a community already living in limbo further toward the unknown. Although it’s not the first time that migrants have been evicted from the canyon, this time around the political climate, real estate market and local geography have changed dramatically. Officials admit they have little to offer the men in the way of assistance. It’s expected many will eventually return.

Citing public health, environmental and fire concerns as well as complaints from nearby residents, City Council President Scott Peters, the San Diego Police Department and the property owners who own the canyon have begun the process of clearing the land.

“I think it’s unfair for the neighborhoods and the canyons to bear that burden,” said Peters, whose district encompasses the canyon and surrounding areas. “It’s just not appropriate for people to be living in the canyons like this.”

In the coming weeks, the rough, rutted roads that lead into the canyon will be barricaded, preventing the few migrants who have cars from entering. Landowners who haven’t done so already will start post no trespassing signs on their property and eventually the migrants’ shacks. Shortly after, the police will begin making the rounds enforcing those postings. Any remaining men will be forced to leave and their dwellings will be dismantled.

For some, it’s all part of tragic irony.

“How do you evict homeless people?” asks Sharon Johnson, the city’s homeless services administrator, and one of several people whose best efforts to find an alternative solution to the migrant’s housing crisis have fallen short. “The response to this issue is schizophrenic.”

Failed Attempt

The building boom of the last decade has transformed Carmel Valley and Rancho Peñasquitos from a rural, agricultural oasis into two of the city’s largest bedroom communities.

As more and more residents have moved into homes in the areas, their interactions with the migrants, who have lived in the canyons here for decades, have increased, fueling concerns over their presence and sparking debate at local town council meetings.

Facing pressure from constituents to do something about the migrants’ encampments, the City Council voted more than a year ago to pursue a state grant funding for the construction of a migrant housing facility.

An ambitious idea, the plan was to use $3 million of state funds dedicated to improving farm worker housing to build a 60-bed facility. The migrants would each pay $5 a day to help defray operating costs and the project would include an on site job center in an effort to remove day laborers from nearby street corners.

Johnson, the city’s homeless services administrator, was put in charge of the project, which she said was enthusiastically embraced by state officials.

Although the city had the money and political will, it lacked the necessary land. City officials considered five parcels in and around the canyon but each was eventually deemed to be environmentally sensitive or lack sufficient access. Another was found to contain an American Indian burial ground, Johnson said.

“The harder we tried the more obvious it became that the feasibility wasn’t there,” said Johnson, who credits Peters’ office and the police department with making a sincere effort to relocate the migrants. “At some point you just have to know that you have done everything that you can and be able to just walk away.”

With the city’s plan dead in the water, the task of helping the men of McGonigle Canyon make alternative living arrangements has fallen largely on the church groups and advocates who provide outreach to their community.

In recent weeks, members of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a nearby church that conducts Sunday mass at the canyon’s chapel, and Border Angels, a local immigrant advocacy organization, have met with Peters’ staff and police officials in an effort to buy time while they investigate other housing options.

Terri Trujillo, who heads the church’s migrant outreach efforts, said that so far that search has yielded few results.

“We don’t know where the men will be going,” Trujillo said. “We don’t have any housing for them.”

The church and Border Angels have been trying to broker a deal that would allow the city to construct large tents – not unlike those used to provide shelter to downtown’s homeless population during winter months – but Trujillo said the idea has received little support.

The recent construction of $1 million dollar homes near the canyon means that residents don’t want the migrants living in their back yards, Trujillo said. Moreover, any site would have to be nearby so that the migrants, most of whom don’t have cars, can get to work.

“We have to get a buy-in from the land owners,” Trujillo said. “Unfortunately, we aren’t getting any buy-in from our councilman. [Peters] wants to distance himself as much as he can from the whole thing.”

While she may not think Peters is helping to solve the problem, Trujillo said it’s those who employ the migrants but fail to provide adequate housing for their workers who have created it. Although many of the men who live in the canyon are day laborers and work odd jobs, others find more steady work at nearby tomato farms, plant nurseries and horse farms.

Johnson said that by renting the farm land from property owners, growers often shirk any responsibility for providing farm worker housing.

“How can you expect the one who leases the land but doesn’t actually use the land to provide housing?” Johnson said. “And on the other hand, if the growers hire the people to grow the stuff but lease the land how can you expect them to build it?”

As general manager of Leslie Farms, which operates a tomato farm adjacent to the canyon, Peter Mackauf, said he’s not aware if any of his workers live in the canyon. But he said that Leslie Farms prefers not to own the land it farms because the soil can’t sustain long term agricultural uses, and the operation will eventually have to move.

Capt. Boyd Long with the police department’s Northern Division, in which part of the canyon is located, said Mackauf told him that 25 to 60 percent of the men in the canyon work for his operation.

Numerous calls to Chris Barcezewski, the manager of Rancho Del Sol, a Carmel Valley nursery that officials said employ some of the men in the canyon, were not returned. The Barcezewski’s family trust also owns some of the property in McGonigle Canyon.

With some of the employers and landowners avoiding the discussion, advocates said there isn’t much hope that they’ll step in to provide a solution.

A Familiar Problem

That people are living in McGonigle Canyon isn’t news. The area has been home to migrants for decades and this latest effort to push them out isn’t the first.

Harry Mathis, the District 1 councilman from 1993 to 2000, remembers that when he took office the canyon was veritable tent city – complete with its own store, bar and church – that provided a home to more than 700 men, women and children.

“A functioning community with people living under squalid conditions,” Mathis said.

Concerns over unsanitary circumstances and potential fire hazards prompted him to crack down on the camps, he said. Mathis said the city was able to obtain federal funding to help relocate many of the migrants to apartments and motels and other affordable housing throughout the county.

“We made it very clear that we weren’t going to allow people to live there,” Mathis said. “They pretty much left willingly but they knew that they had to leave.”

While Mathis said he believes no one was living in the canyon when he left office, Capt. Jim Collins, with the San Diego Police Department’s Northeastern Division, said that while their numbers and visibility may have decreased, the migrants never left.

Collins said he’s had his officers working to close the canyon camps for years, chasing men off one parcel of land only to have others move in weeks later. He calls those efforts part of an “ongoing situation.”

Nothing to Offer

While migrants have lived a rather static existence in McGonigle Canyon, the world around them has changed dramatically.

Johnson said that unlike a decade ago the housing options that are available to the migrants have dwindled as low rents, high vacancy rates and government-subsidized housing have all but disappeared.

“The options we had in the 1990s just aren’t there any more,” Johnson said, adding that she doesn’t expect many of the men will be able to find housing on their own.

“They can go somewhere else in the county and work for other farms, they can go back to their country of origin or they can go live where they can’t be seen,” she said.

Moreover, the political climate surrounding the immigration debate has become increasingly charged as Congress and President Bush attempt to reform America’s immigration policy and citizens groups like the Minute Men keep the issue in the spotlight.

Local politicians aren’t immune from the pressure. Peters said he’s been bashed by right-wing radio shows for not being more aggressive on an issue he sees as a national concern.

“Unfortunately, the immigration issue is bigger than our city and we just happen to be in the geographical area where it plays out,” Peters said. “There doesn’t seem to be a great political or policy win in this problem.”

Although Peters’ spokeswoman said they hope the pending eviction will provide a “comprehensive approach” to the problems posed by migrants living in the canyon, most of those involved in the issue said they doubt it will solve anything and expect a large portion of the men will simply go deeper into other canyons or move onto the streets.

Sue Reynolds, president of Community Housing Works, a nonprofit housing developer and lender that helped relocate migrants in the early 1990s, said forcing the migrants from the canyon will simply amount to “motion without progress.”

Reynolds said the current approach will only move, but won’t address, the community’s public health issues and the migrant’s housing problem. She said some of the men could end up renting apartments as Peters and others hope, “but to say that is where the men are going to go certainly relies on facts not in evidence.”

“Denial is certainly a psychological mechanism,” Reynolds said, “but it’s not good public policy.”

While Reynolds suggests holding off the eviction until the city can offer the men an alternative, the city’s own police department isn’t hurrying to force the men out.

“Were not rushing into this to rush them out because if we do there’s just going to be an increase to our homeless population,” Long said.

Yet Peters said maintaining the status quo is not an option, and he doesn’t favor waiting until an alternative is found.

“This is a problem with not very many great answers,” Peters said. “Although it’s not the perfect way, I think it’s the best that we have.”

Word of their pending eviction has already started circulating among the migrants and many say they won’t wait for the police to show up to relocate.

The fate of the small, iconic outdoor chapel where Payan and the other men attend mass on Sundays is also in question. David Goodell, who owns the property on which the chapel is located, said he’s working with Our Lady of Mount Carmel to keep it where it is and open.

Payan doesn’t know yet what he’ll do or where he’ll go, but said he’d prefer to stay in the canyon because it’s free of rent and it allows him to send more money home.

However, if he’s forced out, Payan said he might look for an apartment although he knows little of the city beyond the canyon’s walls or where to start looking. He has no car and no license and doesn’t know how he’ll get to work.

He’s afraid that if he leaves the canyon he’ll lose his job.

Please contact Daniel Strumpf directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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