They can be seen using tables and benches as shelter to keep dry, their possessions wrapped, bagged, boxed, or stored in any way that can be moved at a moment’s notice. Their dim, unreadable eyes below dirty hair gaze out sometimes in fear or with confusion as they try to make sense of what’s happened to them in their drive to survive another winter-filled day and cold biting night.
While this time of year may mean gathering around the Yuletide fire with friends and family, a hearty meal, and exchanging of gifts, to the silent citizens of Oakdale – the homeless – it is a time of frigid cold, lack of shelter, and just another day of trying to survive.
Evidence of a local encampment can be found in William Meyer Park, adjacent to the Oakdale Library on South First Avenue, where “Sundance” and “Monica” spend most of their day and some nights.
During inclement weather, the pair moves to the porch area of a vacant office structure on South Second, huddled beneath sleeping bags and plastic sheeting to stay warm.
“The cold is the worst,” said Monica from beneath a blue sleeping bag. “And if anything gets wet, you can’t use it until it dries out.”
Monica, 54, spends most of her day wrapped up, unknown if from a sleepless night, a pending illness, or just in the grasp of a dark depression with sleep as a way to escape the reality of her life.
The divorced mother of two has been among the area’s homeless for over three years, after her father died. She had been administering in-home care for him and the Fourth Avenue house where he stayed was lost.
Monica said she became divorced after her husband was arrested for drugs in the 90s and he went to prison. Her adult son does not allow her to stay with him.
Sundance, a feisty and opinionated 60-year-old former backhoe operator who uses a cane to move around, said he’s been living on the streets for over 12 years and has accepted the impoverished life he now leads.
Sundance’s plight started when he injured his back in Minnesota and his union benefits ran out. He moved back to the Central Valley where he has family members and claims he is related to Laci Peterson and Sharon Rocha.
“We watch out for each other,” said Sundance, “but with this weather it’s kind of hard to do something for the other.”
A January 2011 canvass tallied more than 1600 homeless in Stanislaus County. The count at that time showed more than 50 of them in the City of Oakdale.
Victoria, 49, has only been without a permanent residence since July.
A similar situation to Monica where she was living with her father in Waterford until his death, she attributes her situation to alcoholism.
“Alcoholism just took me over after all I’ve gone through,” said Victoria. “My husband who had lived here for 17 years was deported in 2002 and never came back. We had a house, a car and an income. After my dad died, there was nowhere for me to go.
A former computer accountant, Victoria said her “medicated self” allows her to get away and makes the situation easier. She admits that if she wasn’t intoxicated she would be allowed to live with her nearby sister, who doesn’t allow her to be at the house if she drinks.
“I don’t expect to be around five years from now,” Monica said. “I have diabetes, high blood pressure, and muscle issues too. It’s getting to be too much for me to handle.”
The encampments used by these individuals all have the same blight of cardboard, litter, shopping carts, and scrap items, which irritate many citizens.
“These are parks for children and families,” said a woman who did not want to be identified. “It’s hard to come here or walk through when this mess is all around.”
The Oakdale City Council has addressed the problem at various council meetings and has instituted ordinances to assist the police.
Oakdale Police Lieutenant Keri Redd said there are now city ordinances prohibiting camping in city parks and public alcohol consumption.
“We’re working with the city manager and city attorney to get cases filed when we come across the issues,” Redd said. “We’ve also had to remove some park benches and post signs to prevent loitering.”
Redd said in many instances with homeless contacts, the department tries to find housing for the individual through various shelters but most of them don’t accept drug or alcohol dependents.
Both Monica and Victoria said they are contacted by the police on a regular basis. When that occurs, they gather their ready-to-move possessions and move to another location until the next police clear out happens, and the dance continues.
“We stay here and there,” said Victoria. “If you’ve been here awhile, you know where to go.”
During the interviews, a woman in a grey pick-up pulled up with blankets and two pairs of jeans for Monica.
“Have you talked to your son?” the woman asked Monica. “I’ll make sure he knows you’re okay.”
The woman said she regularly stops by and provides food, clothes, and other items for the down-and-out residents she’s gotten to know.
She reminded Sundance and Monica that Hope for the Heart of the United Methodist Church provides meals from them every Sunday.
Food giveaways often represents the only stable element in the lives of these individuals, whose only other means for a living are collecting cans and recyclables.
Oakdale Mayor Pat Paul said the city’s primary goal is to find a place for those living on the streets of Oakdale and is working with Oakdale Community Sharing for the possibility of temporary shelters. She also credits Pamela Kelly in finding shelter and assistance for the homeless through city church groups.
Ken Narita of Oakdale Community Sharing said his agency is the local food bank for Oakdale’s destitute. The organization provides food and clothing to needy Oakdale residents on Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.
“We see new faces every time,” said Narita.
At the start of every year, workers with local governments and nonprofit agencies disperse across the country to count the number of homeless people living in shelters and on the streets during a certain day. Last year’s count had the number of homeless at 633,782, in the U.S., according to The Department of Housing and Urban Development.