Those interested in donating to placing a waste container at homeless camps may contact Mark Dyken at the Jamestown Family Resource Center at (209) 984-4704.

Disabled U.S. Army veteran Benjamin Barnow is one of about 14 homeless people living off the south side of Stockton Road in Sonora who received a notice from the city they had five days to move due to the Sonora’s camping ordinance.

Barnow said on Friday he and his fiancée, Glenda Labonty, were packing their belongings and planned to move across Stockton Road, which is outside of the city limits and Sonora Police Department’s jurisdiction.

“It feels like a slap in the face, but I understand it,” said Barnow, who is 53 and has been homeless since moving to Sonora in 2015.

The Sonora City Council approved an ordinance on Sept. 5 that banned camping without permission on public and private property in response to complaints from local businesses about an increased presence of homeless people in the downtown area.

Under the ordinance, Sonora police can issue a cease-and-desist notice, which tells them to leave the area within five days or face a $100 fine. Multiple violations could result in a misdemeanor with jail time.

The notice given last Saturday stated that any property found at the site after five days could be stored or disposed of by the Sonora Police Department.

Any property held by the department will be disposed of within 90 days. The notice provides a phone number that people can call to retrieve their belongings.

Barnow’s story

Barnow said he’s lived at a campsite off Stockton Road since he moved from Catheys Valley in 2015 to prospect for gold, but ran into trouble in February of that year after getting caught with drug paraphernalia.

Tuolumne County Superior Court records showed that Barnow pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in March 2015 and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, three years unsupervised probation and ordered to pay a $220 fine.

Barnow said he was released after serving six days in Tuolumne County Jail because it was too full and his crime was nonviolent. He’s faced a series of setbacks since then as a result of being homeless.

“I just got stuck,” he said.

In October 2016, Barnow was attacked by three unknown male assailants in their 20s or 30s while he was looking through a trash can at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds for recyclables that he intended to trade in for cash.

Barnow said one of the men asked if he was homeless and when he said yes, all three began beating him with weapons that included a baseball bat and oak tree branch. He was taken by helicopter to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, where he was treated for 10 days.

He said it took him months to recover from a broken collar bone, broken cheekbone and two broken ribs.

Barnow receives 45-percent disability from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and does part-time work when he can find it, but he said it’s not enough to provide for himself and his fiancée and afford rent for a permanent place.

One of the ideas that Barnow offered for helping the homeless is creating a designated camping area like the fairgrounds that would have bathrooms, showers, and trash cans.

He said that he and others often try to tidy up the trash, but it’s not easy when the only trash receptacles are in town and their only mode of transportation is on foot.

“The best thing for everybody would be a centralized homeless camp,” he said. “Safe, secure, and with video cameras.”

Notices create anxiety

Several other people who received a cease-and-desist notice said they have been worrying about what’s going to happen to them.

Rhonda Timm Boyd received the notice at her campsite the day after getting married to her boyfriend, Norman.

“How can they tell you to not be homeless when you’re homeless?” she asked.

James Bayliss, 56, and his brother also received cease-and-desist notices last week. The notices gave them until Feb. 15, which happened to be Bayliss’ birthday.

Unlike some camps, the brothers take pride in keeping their areas immaculate and regularly haul their trash to receptacles in town once a week. They also clean trash along Woods Creek that runs through their area.

Bayliss enjoys talking about his idea called the “B-Haven” that would house 200 men who would go through a one-year program to become more self sustaining.

Bayliss has lived at his camp for about four years.

He was charged with three misdemeanors in August on suspicion of trespassing on private property, willful or negligent destruction or removal of plant material on land without permission from the owner, and resisting arrest.

“I’m not camping, I’ve been squatting on that property for years,” he said.

There’s a document being circulated around the camps with a header that reads “California Right to Rest Act 2018,” which appears to be part of an effort to revive a stalled bill introduced in 2016 by State Sen. Carol Liu, a Democrat from Glendale.

The bill would have prevented California cities from receiving state funds if they enacted or enforced bans on resting or camping in public places.

The Sonora City Council unanimously voted in March 2016 to join other cities publicly opposing the bill, which eventually died in committee hearings.

Working on solutions

Sonora Police Officer Curtis Hankins said he served the notices on Feb. 10 in response to an accumulation of complaints about trash along Stockton Road.

The department has yet to issue a fine for unlawful camping.

Hankins said he planned to go back to the camps possibly as soon as today, but that doesn’t mean he will issue any citations.

“I’m not hardline,” Hankins said. “I don’t see me writing any (fines) this week, I see me talking to them more and seeing where they’re at. I’d rather resolve it without a citation.’

Hankins worked for police departments in Southern California before coming to Sonora in April 2017, which included a stint as a homeless advocate officer for the City of Redlands in San Bernardino County.

Hankins said he was afforded time to work directly with the homeless population in his previous role. However, the Sonora Police Department lacks the manpower to take officers off of patrol for the same type of intensive outreach.

The city also lacks the same level of resources that was available to Hankins in bigger cities, such as rehabs and shelters.

“We could tap into places in the Valley, but we don’t have that kind of manpower here to lose a patrol officer for two hours,” Hankins said. “I’ve learned over the years that if a homeless person is ready to go, they have to go right now. When I set something up later on, they never met me.”

Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel has put together a community engagement team in cooperation with various local agencies that provide services for the homeless.

As part of the team, Hankins recently drove around the city with a VA representative to seek out any homeless veterans and see if they could connect them with the services and benefits that are available to them.

Hankins said he’s also willing to help homeless people with rides to the Social Security Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles to get an ID.

Hankins has attended recent meetings of the city’s homeless task force and believes establishing a low-barrier shelter could be a solution.

“I know there’s been a lot of talking, but now they’ve gotten to asking what’s the solution? What are we going to do?” Hankins said. “We’re never going to arrest our way of this, that’s not an option.”

The Jamestown-based Community Solutions Group, which was formed in response to a survey last year that found 711 homeless people in the county, is working on a plan to at least address the immediate issue with trash.

Shelley Muniz, a member of the group, said they have contacted Waste Management over the past week about renting a 40-yard trash bin that could be brought on site for the homeless to clean up the camps.

Muniz said the group is now trying to raise the $933 it will cost to rent the bin for a week.

“There really are people out there trying really hard to keep their space clean,” Muniz said. “They are more than willing to clean up their own mess.”

Contact Alex MacLean at or (209) 588-4530.