In the Pipeline: Hope on the horizon for Bartlett Park

This is the second part of my column on Bartlett Park, which is located near the Newland House Museum in Huntington Beach.

It is also the place where two bodies were found this summer — apparently the result of a murder/suicide.

For decades the residents who live near the rugged and overgrown 27-acre rectangle of a park, where homeless encampments can be found nestled in the thick underbrush, have been trying to get the city to focus on cleanup efforts.

After walking the area with outspoken resident Suzanne Messina-Cervellone, I reached out to Councilman Joe Shaw to get his impressions of what is being done to help the area. Shaw lived near the park for years and still frequently walks his dog there, so he is well aware of the concerns.

On a cool, gray morning this week, Shaw joined me for a walk with Messina-Cervellone and 72-year-old Mike Cohen — another resident who has been vocal in pressing the city for answers.

As I wrote last week, cleaning up Bartlett Park will never be a quick and easy proposition because it involves many complicated issues. Nesting and other natural considerations hinder the trimming of the trees at certain points of the year, and high on the windswept mesa lay the remnants of yet another central issue.

As with the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, middens — ancient dumpsites — are visible in dozens of areas. Thousands of seashell fragments cover several acres.

So, bottom line, you can't just come in here and begin a clean sweep — at least not on the mesa. Down below in the heavily forested park is another story.

As the four of us walked the area, Shaw expressed his frustrations and agreed that Bartlett Park had finally topped the priority list, at least when it comes to local parks. Shaw shared that the city finally has some money for dramatic efforts to be made in the park within a year.

Like many of us, he finds the density and rugged nature of the park appealing in that it makes for more interesting hiking. But he also understands the frustration of residents when it comes to the homeless encampments.

The unsanitary conditions that arise as a result of the camps are a huge concern. The water channel that runs through the park becomes corrupted, and people's health is compromised. Campfires are also being lit given the cooler weather, presenting another danger.

As it stands now, the city has scheduled monthly cleanup sweeps throughout the park. Correcting something I wrote last week, notices are given to squatters alerting them that they have three days to remove their personal possessions (not 12 days as I had reported).

The underlying problem, of course, is that within days of a cleanup, the homeless people move back to pitch their tents and rebuild their structures. But a more rigorous cleanup program can certainly help break that pattern and make the park a less inviting campground.

This of course will not be easy, but without correcting the situation, Bartlett Park will simply enter a futile cycle of monthly cleanups that lead nowhere. The park needs more than the Band-Aid approach. It needs to be reclaimed by the residents and the city.

As to where the squatters within the park would go, I can't say. It would be great if Huntington Beach could work with other city agencies that offer homeless services.

But the fact that Huntington Beach does not provide homeless shelters cannot be an excuse to ignore basic laws. I think the city should have dealt with this park years ago.

By allowing the camps, officials have created the false sense that it is OK to essentially take over the park and others. It is not OK. But I would also hope we could find resources to help those with no place to live.

As my companions and I stood atop the mesa and took in the wonderful view, it struck me just how important the site is. One hundred years ago city settlers were farming here. Thousands of years ago, Native Americans were thriving here.

This precious piece of the city needs to be preserved, and I'd like to thank Shaw for being proactive and vowing to make a difference in the cleanup and maintenance of Bartlett Park.

Just a couple of hours after our meeting, he wrote to let me know that later this week the city manager, code enforcement, fire and police will all be meeting at the park — as a task force — to properly assess the situation and make sure things get done.

It's a good start to achieving what the residents, and the rest of the city, deserve.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.

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