.South County’s Unhoused Are Key to the Ongoing Pajaro Flood Cleanup

Community-based nonprofits like Watsonville Works are redefining what’s possible for the homeless population

As the waters begin to recede from the recent floods that ravaged South Santa Cruz and North Monterey County, residents have been returning to their homes and starting to clear the debris that overtook their dwellings. 

In Watsonville, homeowners are getting help from members of the community that know displacement well: the unhoused.

On a sunny Wednesday morning last week, volunteers from various local organizations converged on the Drew Lake neighborhood in Interlaken. The crew of about 15 people included volunteers from Trash Talkers, Watsonville Wetlands Watch and Watsonville Works. 

The devastation to the area was extreme. In the weeks prior, the county brought pumps to drain about 20 million gallons of water out of the inundated homes and roads. 

From early morning until noon, volunteers filled up giant metal containers with mud, carpets and other household items that were destroyed by the overflowing waters of Drew Lake in mid-March. Donning neon yellow vests, the volunteers from Watsonville Works hustled in and out of homes, pushing wheelbarrows full of refuse or carrying debris by hand. 

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Watsonville Works is run by the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB) and provides job readiness to unhoused individuals in South County. It also assists them with acquiring a permanent residence as they transition out of homelessness. 

In South County, many of the unhoused have roots in the community and have been making themselves available to assist—it’s an opportunity to show personal growth. Community-based programs like Watsonville Works are a crucial bridge toward stability for them.

Manuel Jimenez was on his second day back with the Watsonville Works clean-up crew after a three-month stint with the program last year. A 30-year resident of Watsonville and former construction worker, Jimenez is currently unhoused and is staying at the Salvation Army shelter downtown.

Jimenez feels a sense of purpose, assisting residents as they begin the recovery process. 

“I’m proud that I can help because they are people whose homes were flooded,” Jimenez says. “This is the reality. We have to help.” 

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Watsonville Works started in 2019 as a transitional work experience program for the unhoused in a collaboration between CAB and the City of Watsonville’s Public Works and Utilities Department. Since then, it has partnered with state employment programs and expanded into projects like clearing homeless encampments and syringe pick-up. 

Felipe Ponce, the crew leader, and case manager for Watsonville Works, has been with the program for the last three years. As a truck hauls a packed dumpster from the clean-up site, Ponce says this work gratifies his team.

“They feel great,” he says. “They love it. It’s some hard work, but in the end, [that work] comes out to be the best.”

Michael Rodriguez has been a Watsonville Works crew volunteer for three years. He moved to the Watsonville area from Phoenix 20 years ago and, in recent years, has battled alcoholism and drug addiction. He says that organizations like CAB and the Watsonville Works program can help other people like him as they try to recover.

After getting clean, Rodriguez gives back to the community and tries to help others. He has worked with Victory Outreach Church of Santa Cruz as a director for Recovery Home, a sober living program. As a staff member for Watsonville Works, he is determined to help his needy neighbors. 

“I’m here to support Watsonville, my city,” Rodriguez says. “We’re here in the mud, but it doesn’t matter; we’re here to help the people.”

Robert Kostreba’s home sits at the end of the road on the edge of Drew Lake. It was completely flooded, and he returned recently to assess the damage. The 76-year-old was staying at a motel and was overwhelmed by the recovery task ahead. 

“All these folks showed up with a dumpster,” Kostreba says. “I was desperate because I couldn’t find anybody [to help]. Thank God for all these people.”

The crew is helping Kostreba clear his garage by shoveling mud and hauling debris. A jacuzzi lays on its side in the yard behind the building, ready to be dismantled and removed.

When asked what he would like the community to know about the efforts that day, Kostreba was overcome with emotion.

“I just want it known that all these people came together,” he says.

STEPPING UP

As this year’s winter storms battered the area, the South County community grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of urgency by state and federal officials to assist the region. After the devastation of the Pajaro flood in Monterey County, the state reluctantly requested federal assistance as local officials urged them to do so. On April 3, more than three weeks after the Pajaro flood, President Biden signed a disaster declaration for Monterey County. 

In South Santa Cruz County, the community has learned to rely on each other and to take a proactive approach. Before the first storms hit in December 2022, residents were already preparing for the worst. Felipe Ponce’s Watsonville Works crew and other community volunteers filled sandbags on the frontline.

“We had about 17 people [volunteering],” Ponce says. “We did it; we were out there, rain or shine. We’re here to give back to the community.”

According to Paz Padilla, the director of Programs and Impact for CAB, about 80,000 pounds of sand was bagged and distributed in three days in early January at locations in Watsonville. She says that the Covid-19 pandemic taught the CAB staff the importance of adaptability, and those lessons were crucial in pivoting their services towards storm response.

The glacial pace of state and federal response is not new. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, whose district includes most of Pajaro and Watsonville, has seen the community come together in the face of natural disasters. The winter floods are the most recent example, but he remembers a similar community effort after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“The state response, the federal response was not there,” Hernandez says. “This is a community that comes together in times of crisis, and I think it’s always going to be that way here in the Pajaro Valley.”

Hernandez says that the collaboration between nonprofits like CAB and local government is a model that should be replicated in other counties and municipalities. He is proud of the individuals transitioning from homelessness, playing a crucial role in such times.

“Putting the houseless back to work instills a sense of community and a sense of work ethic back into folks,” Hernandez says.

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