Charles Floyd Miller Jr. believes there’s a positive change occurring at the homeless camp off the north side of Stockton Road in Sonora.
Miller, 71, has lived in the camp since the summer of 2016 and says the residents there have started working together to manage the area better over the past several months. He sees growing support from the outside world for their efforts.
“It’s turned from a bunch of lost souls into a community,” he said.
There was evidence of that at the camp Friday morning as a group of homeless residents worked alongside volunteers with weed eaters to reduce fire danger in the area.
The volunteers were employees of Walmart on Sanguinetti Road, who were helping off the clock as part of a program where employees donate their time to a charitable organization and the company provides grants to that organization based on the number of hours volunteered.
Hazel Mitchell, of Jamestown, was the one who applied for the program through her and her husband’s nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance, which provides aid to people who are homeless in Tuolumne County.
“With her extra push and her demeanor, it made me want to help her,” said Anthony Fried, co-manager of the Walmart store in Sonora.
The company will also provide a $5,000 grant to Give Someone a Chance to support their efforts, in addition to what will likely be $500 for the volunteer hours worked on Friday.
There were six employees who volunteered to help cut back weeds.
“Anything we could do to help the community and have a better environment, because we don’t want any fires out here,” said Forrest Armstrong, manager of the auto care center at the Walmart store in Sonora.
The camp is located on about 20 acres owned by brothers Larry and Delbert Rotelli where they previously operated a burn dump.
Delbert Rotelli said on Friday that they haven’t given permission to stay there, but they haven’t tried to kick them off in awhile because people would always eventually just return.
Rotelli said he believes some people are also staying on about 10 acres adjacent to his that’s owned by a person from Tracy.
“I know they got to go someplace, I feel sorry for them, but I don’t know what to do about it,” he said. “As long as they keep the place clean, what else are you going to do with them?”
The residents organized a massive weeks-long cleanup from January to February with the help of Mitchell and several others in the community who brought pick-up trucks, trailers and even a backhoe to help haul away trash.
There’s bare dirt in many places where there used to be heaping piles of garbage and much of the rest of the area is also cleaner than it has looked in years. Miller said they no longer have problems with wood rats that were attracted by the garbage.
Mitchell has created a new program she calls “Trash to Cash” in which they bring a 20-yard trash container to the camp every first and third Friday of the month and give people 42-gallon trash bags to fill up.
People can earn a token for each full bag of trash that they can redeem for items at the Give Someone a Chance shower bus, which operates four days a week at various locations throughout the county.
For example, one token can be redeemed for a three-pack of AAA batteries and 50 tokens gets them a bicycle. Mitchell said several people have already earned 50 tokens.
Mitchell hopes the program will help instill pride among the residents about what they’re doing, encourage participation to keep the area clean, and change some of the stigma around homelessness.
“What we hope is that people will be more receptive to them and understand that they’re human beings who deserve a chance,” she said. “As a community, let’s give them that chance.”
Donations are needed to rent the trash container from Cal Sierra Disposal Waste Management on a consistent basis. The cost is $666.23 per month to empty it one time every 30 days and $163.11 plus $104.90 per ton for each additional empty in the same period.
Mitchell also wants to raise the funds for setting up three portable toilets at the camp that would be serviced twice weekly, which would cost $4,849.33 for the full year.
There’s also a new communal area at the camp that has a makeshift kitchen where people who go to work in the mornings can get coffee and breakfast. They also cook community dinners at night.
Churches in the area and individuals have started to regularly bring them food that they cook on a barbecue in the communal area, including chicken, steaks and hot dogs.
They typically serve food to 10 to 30 people per day.
Earl Randall, 87, of Tuolumne, has been regularly bringing water to the homeless for years and was there on Friday helping with a weed eater. He said he goes to the camp almost daily to check on them and make sure everything’s under control.
Randall said they’ve gotten more residents to help with the various projects and some of them have started to get odd jobs around town doing yard work for extra money. He believes the newfound sense of community is part of the reason they’ve been more engaged.
“The people have their dignity back again,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.