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Crews Converge In Encampment Clean Up
Caltrans workers cut back tree limbs, cleaned up debris and had the task of telling the homeless who waited until the day of the project that they needed to relocate to another area. Caltrans workers handed out bags for them to use to pack up their belongings. - photo by DENNIS D. CRUZ/THE LEADER

It is no secret that the river that runs by Oakdale Shopping Center off Highway 120 is the home to many of Oakdale’s homeless. Several complaints recently came into the Oakdale Police department about issues in that area, including a broken lock by the river gate, so access could be gained into a restricted area.

“We went down there and noticed a lock had been broken, and I had asked them to stay out of it,” Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins noted of the homeless community. “They were cooperative and no further damage was done up to that point.”

In mid-June, a coordinated effort sought to relocate some of the homeless from their river encampment, with the Department of Fish and Game issuing notices earlier in the month that they needed to relocate and leave the river area.

On June 16, in the early morning hours, Caltrans and California Conservation Corps workers began cutting down branches, and eliminate brush where the homeless seek shelter. The Caltrans workers supplied them with bags for the homeless in that area to pack up their belongings.

“We hate to do it to them, but we also have jobs to do. Most of them were cooperative, and were thankful for the bags,” said Caltrans Supervisor Danny Robles, who has been with Caltrans for the better part of 30 years.

With an estimated 15 homeless packing up what they owned, and some with tears in their eyes, they all were being faced with the same questions on their minds: What do we do next? Where do we go?

“This is all new to me. I hit a stretch of bad luck in January. I lost my job; I don’t have family in the area and can’t afford bus fare to get to Modesto for shelter,” shared one woman who wanted to remain anonymous, sharing her emotional story. “The people around here have been nice enough to go into Cost Less and buy me food from time to time, but that was far and few in between. I won’t give up, I have been filling out job applications, but I don’t own a working phone anymore, so it’s hard.”

Another man, who also wanted his identity kept under wraps, offered his thoughts.

“I’ve been out here for almost two years now. The winters are cold and the nights are long. I would stay up in the trees, so nobody would bother me, and it was a great way to stay cool,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s next but I can promise you that this will only bring us closer to town.”

The workers cleaned up the area that included many abandoned items from those who left prior to the deadline. Items included blankets, damaged bikes, bottles, food wrappers and even human fecal matter.

“On the positive, no drugs or drug paraphernalia was found. Usually in a project like this, we find something, but nothing here, so that tells me that these people were trying to get back on the right track,” said Robles.

While some see the upside of allowing the homeless to stay at the river, some business owners in the complex said customers have admitted to feeling uncomfortable when they come into the parking lot or the stores themselves, so it is very much a Catch-22 for all the agencies involved.

“It’s a big problem and still is a large problem for us,” Grocery Outlet Bargain Market owner Carl LaForce said of the homeless population. “My staff members or myself will make weekly calls to Oakdale Police Department about them.”

LaForce said customers and employees have sometimes felt harassed, and when some homeless moved in to the area surrounding the now-closed Oakdale Theater, complex officials put up a chain link fence to keep them from squatting in the parking lot.

“We want this to be a safe environment for our customers, and our workers,” LaForce said.