The homeless problem in Oakdale is continuing to be an issue as Neighborhood Watch groups in the city are starting to speak out requesting action as city officials search for an answer.
At the Jan. 20 Oakdale City Council meeting, Burchell Hill Neighborhood Watch Captain and head of the city’s graffiti abatement hotline, Mike Hancock, told the council he felt the vagrancy problem near the Stanislaus River was getting worse and damage being caused would affect the image of the city.
“As long as we allow the vagrants to live by the river we’re going to have this kind of damage being done,” said Hancock.
He described the damage to the area as scattered trash and debris, graffiti and other vandalism.
A few days after the meeting, The Leader met with Hancock, who was awarded the 2014 Oakdale Citizen of the Year. He was quick to call attention that there is a difference between “homelessness” and “vagrancy.”
“The homeless need, want, and seek help to change their situation,” said Hancock, when walking along the Stanislaus River pointing out various camps and strewn trash. “What we have here are vagrants who choose to live like that and are deteriorating the way the town looks.”
By differentiating between the two groups, Hancock feels service clubs and organizations will still be able to assist the “homeless” while “vagrancy” is dealt with by the police.
Hancock said the topic of the “vagrants” comes up frequently at the Neighborhood Watch meetings he attends not only for Burchell Hill, but others in the city also.
“People at the apartment complexes along the Caudell Trail have talked about people sleeping on their porches or knocking on their doors and begging,” Hancock said. “They’re in a constant problem battling with people there.”
When the city asked for solutions Hancock pitched a “safe and clean” initiative used by Yuba City to city officials including the city manager, mayor, and police chief. The initiative lists 19 points focused on reducing criminal and antisocial behavior; with emphasis on behavior, not residential status.
Part of the problem, according to Hancock, is with the ordinances the police currently have to deal with. Hancock said police now have to “give notice” for people to vacate even in areas where camping is prohibited.
Hancock pointed to a sweep last March where groups of transients were coming into the Burchell Hill development resulting in a spike in thefts, vandalisms, and other destruction of property. Police and public works staff later dismantled three transient encampments on the banks of the Stanislaus River near Valley View Park.
“We go in and do the housekeeping by cleaning up their mess and then they come back to a nice prepared area,” Hancock said. “The tents and camps come back up. We ought to be able to just come in and remove it if they’re camping illegally.”
Debbie Heinz, who has managed the River Paradise Mobile Home Park along the river for the last nine years, has the same sentiments and sides with Hancock.
“We’re having a continuous problem here with different people who are living down by the river,” said Heinz. “We end up policing our park and the river ourselves while they are setting up camps on the property we live and take care of.”
Heinz also made the differentiation of “the homeless” and “vagrants.”
“Homeless are there due to their unfortunate circumstances when life threw them a curveball,” Heinz said. “The ones I’m dealing with are vagrants – a different breed. They’re there by choice and choose to live like that, being a burden to the rest of us.”
When Heinz has challenged those from the river area on her property she’s been met with resistance, arguments, and even threats.
“I had one guy with a big stick challenging me to remove him or call the police,” she said. “The guy said the area he was on was open to the public so he ‘had the right’ to be there as long as he wanted.”
In addition to being a nuisance, Heinz said the problem is also a health and safety matter.
Heinz had horror stories of the vagrants using the property’s swimming pool, finding individuals using resident hoses for bathing, and reports of human feces and waste along the river and other areas of the mobile home park.
“We can’t even leave our dog’s messes when we’re out walking them,” said a resident who was in the office with Heinz. “Yet they’re out here crapping on the trails and on our properties.”