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A big cleanup begins at homeless camps


Benjamin Barnow, 53, of Sonora, moves trash from a pile on top of a hill off Stockton Road to a dumpster across the road donated by Community Solutions Group "I feel like I should lead by example" said Barnow. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Mark Dyken, a member of the Jamestown based Community Solutions Group, was on-site Tuesday as a large roll-off container was delivered by Waste Management. The Community Solutions Group raised money to rent the large container as a way to help the homeless clean up their camps. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Larry Hunter, 50, of Sonora, talks about the difficulties of being homeless. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Benjamin Barnow, 53, of Sonora, heaves a load of trash from his homeless camp into a dumpster across Stockton road "I feel like I should lead by example" said Barnow. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Glenda LaBonty, 47, of Sonora (left), and her fiancé Benjamin Barnow, 53, work together to pick up trash around the homeless camps Wednesday afternoon. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Benjamin Barnow, 53, of Sonora, uses a wheelbarrow to move trash from a pile on top of a hill off Stockton Road to a dumpster across the road donated by Community Solutions Group. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Glenda LaBonty, 47, of Sonora, made a sign with a piece of cardboard about the rules of using the dumpster donated by the Community Solutions Group. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Larry Hunter, 50, of Sonora, prepares to move a pile of metal, most of which was at his homeless campsite before he moved in. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Donated sheets are piled up with trash, an easier way to move it. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
Mark Dyken, a member of the Jamestown based Community Solutions Group, was on-site Tuesday as a large roll-off container was delivered by Waste Management. The Community Solutions Group raised money to rent the large container as a way to help the homeless clean up their camps. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)
A wheelbarrow is piled with trash as a couple homeless people work to gather up trash Wednesday afternoon. (Maggie Beck / Union Democrat)

Benjamin Barnow pushed a wheelbarrow across Stockton Road on Wednesday full of trash he gathered from his and other homeless camps in the area.

The 53-year-old partially disabled U.S. Army veteran heaved contents of the wheelbarrow wrapped in a large tarp into a 20-yard waste container and wiped sweat from his face with his forearm. He said it was his 11th load since the container was delivered shortly after noon on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to do this for all of the people who chipped in for the container,” Barnow said. “But with all of this trash, it’s going to take

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Benjamin Barnow pushed a wheelbarrow across Stockton Road on Wednesday full of trash he gathered from his and other homeless camps in the area.

The 53-year-old partially disabled U.S. Army veteran heaved contents of the wheelbarrow wrapped in a large tarp into a 20-yard waste container and wiped sweat from his face with his forearm. He said it was his 11th load since the container was delivered shortly after noon on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to do this for all of the people who chipped in for the container,” Barnow said. “But with all of this trash, it’s going to take more than one.”

A day earlier, Mark Dyken waited off the side of Stockton Road for Waste Management to drop off the container that can hold about 3 tons of garbage.

Dyken is a member of the Jamestown-based Community Solutions Group that raised $480 to rent the container for a week in hopes of helping the homeless currently in the woods off both sides of the road.

The group of volunteers came together last year after a survey conducted in late September found 711 people were homeless in Tuolumne County at the time, with more than a third of those counted saying they were living outside.

The group’s first project was a “Stuff the Bus” event just days before Christmas to collect donations of supplies that they later distributed to the homeless, such as jackets, tarps, sweaters, batteries, and flashlights.

Barnow, who has been homeless and living in a camp on the east side of the road since 2015, was designated by Dyken to lead the effort and let others know what they can and can’t put in the container.

Barnow’s fiancée, Glenda LaBonty, wrote the prohibited items on a sign she made out of cardboard and hung on a metal post next to the container.

The couple used shovels to clean trash in a clearing across the road from their camp. Barnow plans to sleep in a tent beside the container in case people try to illegally dump their trash.

“I’m trying to lead by example,” Barnow said. “When I need help, I’ll ask.”

Barnow was invited by Dyken’s group to attend one of their meetings to ask what things they could do to help the homeless living in the camps.

Dyken said Barnow told them about the need for a container to put the trash that has accumulated in the area.

“We most recently heard about the trouble people were having with rats because of the trash and people putting pressure on them,” Dyken said. “The folks weren’t asking for someone else to clean it up for them, they just needed a place to put it.”

Caltrans recently installed signs on the east side of Stockton Road declaring the land as state property and warning that dumping is prohibited.

The signs were installed just days after James Bayliss, who lives in a camp on that side of the road, made an effort to clean up the area. Caltrans crews had picked up bags he had placed along the side of the road where the signs now stand.

Dyken said his group can ask Waste Management to empty the bin if it gets full before the week is up. They plan on checking it periodically over the coming days.

The group is also trying to raise more money to rent the container for another week if needed.

Barnow and several other people who live in the camps say much of the trash they’re cleaning up was there before they arrived.

They have also witnessed people illegally dumping their own trash in the area.

Delbert Rotelli and his brother, Larry, own about 20 acres of land on the west side of Stockton Road that was formerly a burn dump.

Rotelli said his family opened the dump in the 1920s and shut it down more than 55 years ago, but people still toss garbage on the land.

“It’s not all from the homeless,” Rotelli said. “There are people driving by and throwing it out of their car. I’ve seen them do that.”

Rotelli previously cleared the homeless off his land about four to five years ago, but it wasn’t long before they returned and he’s since stopped bothering them.

“Chasing them away from the City of Sonora isn’t going to do it,” said Rotelli, who lives in the city. “That’s the city limits, but they’re not bothering anybody down there.”

Rotelli believes the city should should set up a designated homeless camp on land they own south of the current camps that’s referred to as the Von Eichel property.

However, the city is currently seeking interest from partners to possibly develop the land. In the 1990s, the previous owners had tried and failed to develop the land into a commercial center with a hotel and conference room.

Larry Hunter, who’s lived in a camp off the west of Stockton Road, said he once saw someone illegally dump five semi-truck tires on the land. He pointed out another pile of trash that was dumped illegally that contained a broken vacuum.

“Why would any of us need a vacuum cleaner?” he asked. “We don’t have electricity.”

Hunter said he knows of more than a dozen people who live in camps off the west side of Stockton Road, including two friendly pit bulls named Bubba and Ruthless (whom they refer to by the nickname Ruthie).

The 50-year-old moved to the area in 2009 to live with a female friend who he met while serving time at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.

After the relationship fell apart, Hunter began camping off Stockton Road with his girlfriend in June 2016.

“I came out here because my girlfriend became homeless and I wouldn’t let her live by herself,” he said.

Hunter served two years in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve in the late 1980s. He said he enlisted to become a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough and he was instead assigned to work on the planes.

At age 19, Hunter was convicted of armed robbery in the Bay Area for which he served four years in prison. He learned how to be a computer technician while serving his sentence and got a job doing that when he was released.

“I should have gone to prison for what I did,” Hunter said.

Hunter served another six years in prison for discharging a firearm in a residential area of Modesto in 2001. He said he shot into the air and was given a stiffer sentence because of his previous conviction.

He said he suffers from nagging back injuries stemming in part from spending four years fighting fires as part of an inmate crew while serving in prison the second time.

Hunter said he doesn’t like being homeless and hopes to find a way out.

“This is not any fun,” he said. “You constantly have to deal with things that shouldn’t be a problem, like the weather, getting water and going to the bathroom.”

Hunter said he believes there are some in the community who hate the homeless. However, he said there are more groups that provide food, clothing and other supplies than other places he’s lived.

Both Hunter and Barnow acknowledged the work of Hazel and Dick Mitchell, founders of Give Someone A Chance, as examples of people in the community who care.

One suggestion made by Hunter as a way to better unite the community would be to host a function where people would meet and interact with those who are homeless.

Hunter said the rental of the trash container was something he’s heard people talking about for nearly two years but had yet to come to fruition until now.

“I heard about it and honestly didn’t believe it until I saw it,” he said. “It shows there are people who actually care.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.




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BREAKOUT BOX:

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The Jamestown-based Community Solutions Group was formed last year to help the hundreds of people who are homeless in Tuolumne County.

Dyken, who also serves as director of the Jamestown Family Resource Center and homeless youth liaison to the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office said he believes one of the keys is to focus on small changes and take action to make them happen.

For more information about the group and upcoming efforts, contact Dyken at the Jamestown Family Resource Center at mdyken@jespanthers.org or (209) 984-4704.