Prospectors came to Sonora in the 1850s to search for gold along Woods Creek, but these days the most abundant finds near the water’s edge are piles of decaying trash left behind from abandoned homeless encampments.
The problem seems to have gotten worse in the past year, according to residents, property owners and people who run businesses on Stockton Road, a stretch that some have reportedly started referring to as “hobo highway.”
“The amount of garbage that’s accumulated in the last three years is in the tonnage now,” said Harold King, of Sonora. “As we let another 365 days go by, we accumulate another 2 to 3 tons of garbage.”
There has been much discussion among the community in recent years about blight and crime related to homelessness being on the rise in the City of Sonora and outlying areas of Tuolumne County, yet little visible action has been taken to address the problem.
King, who works as a caregiver transporting cancer patients to doctor appointments and treatment, said he’s lived in the county since 2010 and started seeing garbage piling up along Woods Creek in the past three years.
“That mess wasn’t there when I would go panning down there with my dog three years ago,” he said.
King said he’s taken his concerns to the Sonora Police Department and the Tuolumne County Environmental Health Department, but was told that there was little else they could do because of laws and court decisions intended to protect the constitutional rights of homeless people.
He worries about the environmental damage and risk to public health posed by the trash and human waste mere feet from the edge of the creek, which he believes could be a potential attraction because of its historical significance.
“We’re on the brink of losing Woods Creek,” he said. “Officials aren’t seeing what’s going on out there from behind their desk.”
Officials at the Environmental Health Department could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Garbage has also piled up again in areas where people are known to camp off the north and south sides of Stockton Road near Highway 108, less than a year after a clean-up effort led by the homeless and volunteers resulted in several tons of trash being hauled away from the area.
Meanwhile, the number of incidents related to homeless people in the area have also reportedly increased in the past year.
The repeated issues have gotten to the point where property owner Greg Popovich recently decided to sell a building he owns on Stockton Road that houses a thrift shop and hydroponics store.
Some of the issues Popovich said he has experienced in recent years include multiple broken out window panes, syringes and human feces found in the parking lot, and a warming fire getting out of control just behind his building.
“Everyone is trying to figure out how to do this or that, but the best idea would be to find somebody that’s successful and copy that,” he said.
Popovich said he’s heard of other places in the state that have established shelters and designated areas for the homeless and would be interested in working with the city or county to do something similar here, but he wants to see some commitment to action on their part as opposed to just talking about the issue.
There are two shelters in the county that have less than 40 beds between them and are consistently full with lengthy waiting lists. They also have certain rules and requirements that prevent some people from being able to stay at them.
“I’m interested in helping with solutions, not talk,” he said. “Once they’re done talking, they can come to me for help with solutions.”
Adam Marsh has operated Mother Lode Hydroponics and Organics for nearly 10 years in the building owned by Popovich. He said he’s never had to call the police over an issue with homeless people until it hit a peak this year.
Marsh estimated that he’s made dozens of calls this year alone due to escalating incidents and confrontations with employees and customers.
“I’m not in the business of calling the cops on homeless people,” he said. “It makes you feel kind of like a bad person, but I have to prioritize the safety of my employees above all else as a business owner.”
Marsh said he believes the police are doing the best job they can, but a community-wide strategy is needed to address the problem.
Some of Marsh’s suggestions as possible ways to curb some of the issues included facilities for the homeless to throw away their trash, a needle disposal program, portable bathrooms, and a designated area to camp.
“This is an environmental crisis that’s being ignored,” he said. “Until we have a way to help them get out of their situation, the process we have isn’t very effective at all.”
Sonora Police Sgt. Tim Wertz said the department can no longer enforce an ordinance passed by the city council last year that banned “urban camping” due to a federal court’s ruling in September that such laws were unconstitutional when no other shelter space is available.
Wertz said they also have trouble enforcing laws against trespassing on the private property off Stockton Road because the patchwork of parcels are owned by a number of different people, some of whom are difficult to track down.
“Every bit of that on both sides is private property,” he said. “The property owners have basically given up on trying to enforce anything.”
Wertz said the majority of calls for service they respond to are “transient-related,” including vandalism, public intoxication, theft, drug-related issues, domestic violence, and assaults.
“We’ve had houses broken into and the only thing done was showers were used,” he said.
Homeless advocates like Hazel Mitchell, who runs a local nonprofit aid organization called Give Someone a Chance, have tried for years to bring together a task force of community groups and agencies that provide services related to issues that can contribute to homelessness, such mental health, substance abuse, and lack of education or job training.
“What we’ve tried to show over and over is that it’s a community problem, and not just government,” she said. “We all need to pitch in and get all of our parts done and maybe we can come up with a solution and follow it.”
Mitchell has also tried to build a privately funded semi-outdoor shelter on land she and her husband previously owned in East Sonora, but ultimately had to sell the property after being unable to generate enough support for the idea.
The idea that such facilities will invite more homeless people to the area from elsewhere is a common misconception, Mitchell said.
“We don’t have anywhere near what they can offer in the cities, but they want to be in a peaceful place,” she said. “It’s the same reason we move here, because we just want peace. These are human beings we’re dealing with.”
Raj Rambob, executive director of the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, has supported and tried to promote the idea of establishing a low-barrier shelter somewhere in the community.
A task force created by the city council last year explored the idea for several months, but ultimately decided that the county would have to be involved due to the city’s much more limited resources.
While some shelters have requirements for people to be actively looking for work, seeking an education or being sober, low-barrier shelters don’t have the same requirements in an effort to get more people off the streets and connected with service providers.
“Until we do something like that, I don’t think we’re going to see a reduction in trash accumulation,” Rambob said.
Rambob previously helped run such a shelter called Grace Place in El Dorado County from 2005 to 2008. He said the shelter saw 8,000 check-ins over that time, and he was told that calls to police related to vagrancy had dropped to nearly zero.
He estimated the funding needed to operate a low-barrier shelter would be relatively low, but the biggest challenges are finding a location and gaining enough support from the community for the concept to work.
“This is a shared responsibility,” he said.
In the meantime, Rambob said work is still going on between ATCAA and Sheila Shanahan, the county’s housing program coordinator, that he believes will produce positive outcomes.
Shanahan gave a presentation to the county Board of Supervisors last week about ongoing efforts to provide more rental assistance and renovate a 10-unit housing complex on Hospital Road using new funding from the state intended to combat homelessness.
“These are short-term, limited funds and have to be spent quickly,” Rambob said. “The way Tuolumne County is using those funds is very wise from my perspective because they’re putting it to one-time costs.”
Volunteers are also being sought by ATCAA to help with a “point-in-time” survey that will be conducted in January, which counts the number of homeless people living in the county at that given time.
The surveys are typically completed once every other year and help decide how much money the county can get from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for combatting homelessness based on the number of people who are counted.
A privately funded survey that was conducted in September 2017 found 711 people in the county who were homeless at the time, about five times more than one conducted in January 2017 in part because more volunteers participated.
Rambob said those interested in volunteering in January can contact ATCAA at (209) 533-1397, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: “Tuolumne PIT Volunteer.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.