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Eviction Day At The River
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Lt. Lester Jenkins of the Oakdale Police Department assisted the Stanislaus County Honor Farm inmates Thursday, Sept. 10 as they tore down the transient camps littering the Stanislaus River near the CostLess Market. The clean-up day was part of a multi-agency project in response to citizen complaints. - photo by Kim Van Meter/The Leader

They were given 21 days to vacate the premises.

On Thursday, Sept. 10 the eviction crews arrived in the form of multiple county and city agencies to tear down the transient camps squatting along the riverbanks of the Stanislaus River behind CostLess Market, kicking off a project aimed at reclaiming prime river frontage for the community.

Complex as a rabbit warren, the thick foliage of blackberry brambles, wild grapes, and elderberry effectively hid the extensive encampment from the street view but provided an eyesore for river enthusiasts as they floated down the Stanislaus during the summer.

Soiled, soggy mattresses, crates, bicycle parts, tires, bedding, a sofa or two, a Weber barbecue — the list goes on of trash salvaged by transients attempting to create a living space where formerly only animals and bugs found refuge.

“We’ve never seen the camps so elaborate before,” Rick Fields, Oakdale City Fire Division Chief said. “They had living quarters and sleeping quarters but the garbage was infiltrating the river. You can see shopping carts and tires falling into the water.

“We tried to give everyone sufficient time to gather their belongings and leave,” Phil McKay, California Department of Fish & Game stated. There was only one person down there when we arrived and there was no physical resistance.”

That one person was Tammy Garrett, 48, a transient woman who has been calling the riverbank home for at least the past two years.

Garrett, who moved to Oakdale 13 years ago, was allowed to gather her few possessions so they weren’t tossed in the Dumpster but as she sat on the curb, her dog Hooker, beside her, her face swollen from crying, told the other side of the story.

“I don’t get in trouble but I can’t even sleep in the dirt,” Garrett said, her soft-drawl betraying southern roots. “I’ve got nowhere to go. I’ve been living there in that spot for two years not bothering no one. I know some others didn’t but I kept my spot clean. I’ve been sprayed by skunks, bitten by spiders, and other critters but I wasn’t hurting no one. I don’t have a clue where I’m going to lay my head tonight.”

Dejection and defeat mixed with anger at her situation as she watched the crews haul the mounds of garbage away. She didn’t understand why she was being ousted from her “home” by the city and cited for trespassing when the property didn’t belong to the city.

CostLess Market owns the river frontage with a federal easement claimed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The market owners gave the city, state and county agencies permission to oust the transients from the property.

Offers were made to transport the male transients to the Gospel Center Rescue Mission in Stockton and the Modesto Gospel Mission. The women transients would be put on a waiting list.

Garrett declined the offer, stating she couldn’t take her dog.

“This dog is my family,” Garrett said, giving the healthy black lab a loving pat. “He’s best damn man I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not going anywhere without him.”

Garrett is the first to admit she doesn’t want to remain in Oakdale but she’s stuck. Nowhere to go and no way to get there. So she makes the best of it here. She recycles, like many of the transients, she takes care of her dog, and mainly keeps to herself. She admits to mistakes she’s made in the past, a private heartache in losing custody of her son so many years ago, and the uncertainty that goes hand in hand with losing everything and having nothing to hold onto.

“I don’t want to live,” she said, looking away. “But I don’t have the courage to kill myself.”

Garrett’s story is sad but the law does not bend. There are no squatter’s rights and the transients are trespassing on private property even if Garrett and her neighbors have claimed otherwise.

And hidden behind those thick, twisting brambles is prime riverbank property.

“If it were open people would take better care of it,” McKay said. “And then these groups of people wouldn’t move in. It’s everybody’s river to enjoy not abuse.”

But for now, it’s a health and safety issue as well as an environmental one.

Aside from the sheer ‘yuck’ factor involved with cleaning up the camps — where the evidence of the basest of human existence is evident — crews had to watch for dirty, used syringes. On clean up day, 13 syringes were collected from the ground, six of which were clumped in one area, sticking up for anyone to stumble upon.

“And we probably only found a small percentage of what’s really out there,” McKay said. “That’s a real health problem.”

Long range plans include a fuel reduction plan that would entail clearing out the foliage, baring the river to the street view and creating a more park-like setting for the community to enjoy. Budget constraints have prevented the project from getting the green light but the plans are there and there’s much support from the community to get it done.

“It could be really beautiful down there,” McKay said. “That’s prime property.”

Additional clean up is scheduled for the area of Kerr Park in a few weeks and police will be patrolling the area to ensure that the transients don’t try to return and rebuild their camps.