A shiny, new Chevy Silverado with a handicap license plate rumbled up a muddy dirt road off the north side of Stockton Road in Sonora just before noon on Friday and parked between two heaping piles of garbage, each likely weighing thousands of pounds.
Earl Randall, 87, stepped out of the driver’s side while a homeless man and woman started stuffing garbage from one of the piles into black plastic trash bags and tossing them into a roughly 18-foot trailer hooked to Randall’s truck.
Randall got back in the truck after the trailer was full and maneuvered it in reverse down the bumpy, winding road to another group of homeless men and women who were waiting to transfer the load into a 40-yard trash container.
Randall’s eyes welled up with tears when asked why he feels compelled to help the homeless, some of whom live in tents scattered about the hillside.
“It’s a hard thing to say because other people don’t have what I have,” he said. “I haven’t forgotten where I came from, and I feel sorry for them. I enjoy doing this… helping people.”
Randall was one of several people and groups who were taking part in a collaborative effort that began on Friday to clean up homeless encampments on the outskirts of downtown Sonora.
The project was spearheaded by the homeless themselves with the help of Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of the Jamestown-based nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance, which provides aid to people who are living without shelter in Tuolumne County.
It comes at a time when a growing number of people in the community are calling for action to be taken that would reduce homelessness in the city and county.
Two 40-yard trash containers were dropped off Thursday by Cal Sierra Disposal, a local subsidiary of Waste Management, at separate locations off the north and south sides of Stockton Road.
The company donated the containers for the cleanup effort that’s planned to go through Monday.
Each container holds about 5 to 6 tons, roughly equivalent to the weight of an adult African elephant. It took less than 24 hours to completely fill the one on the north side of Stockton Road, with much more trash remaining on the hillside.
Similar cleanups of the homeless camps off Stockton Road have taken place in the past, but trash keeps piling up again because the only place they can take it is the Cal Sierra transfer station that’s nearly six miles away in East Sonora.
Another reason is because people who aren’t homeless also frequently dump their trash in the area off the north side of Stockton, which was evidenced by some items found in the piles that a person who is living outdoors would have no use for, including microwaves, televisions, and even a ceramic kitchen sink.
Randall said he believes the city and county should provide trash containers and portable toilets at the camps to cut down on the waste that could pose a threat to public health. He urged the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors at a meeting on Jan. 15 to do so.
“They would give us aid if it was a big fire, but you don’t see that when it comes to this,” he said, referring to homelessness. “”I don’t want to just talk about it anymore. I want to see some action.”
Much of the heavy lifting on Friday was done by the homeless themselves. Almost all of them said they would prefer to have a roof over their head than live outside among the trash, which can attract large wood rats that sometimes chew through their tents at night.
One of the people helping with the cleanup on Friday was James Chewning, 48, a U.S. Army veteran who’s been homeless and living at the Stockton Road camps for about the past month.
Chewning said he’s been homeless since being laid off last year from his job as a licensed pasteurizer at a dairy farm in Modesto.
“It’s given me a much different perspective on the homeless,” he said. “We’re all one paycheck away.”
Prior to becoming homeless, Chewning said he used to look at some homeless people and assume they were likely criminals. He’s found that most, however, are nicer and more generous than people he’s encountered who have homes.
The social stigma is one of the most difficult parts about being homeless for Chewning, who has benefits from the VA that can help him get back on his feet after he’s able to find housing.
“I could be in nice, clean clothes while sitting on a bench downtown and people will go out of their way to walk around me,” he said of the stigma. “If you’re sitting on a bench and have a backpack, they know.”
Michael Rogers, 56, was another homeless man who was helping with the cleanup work on Friday.
Rogers proudly said that he received a sobriety chip this week at a Celebrate Recovery meeting to commemorate 30 days clean from methamphetamine. He said he’s also been off heroin for 26 years.
“Things just weren’t going very well, it wasn’t the answer,” he said of why he wanted to get off drugs. “Now, I’ve got people coming to my tent because I’m clean and telling me I’m an inspiration to them.”
Many of the other homeless people participating in the cleanup on Friday also seemed to be in good spirits as they helped with the project, socialized with volunteers and enjoyed some breakfast sandwiches and burritos that Mitchell provided.
Mitchell said the homeless asked her to help organize the effort and rent the trash containers. She said the containers typically cost hundreds of dollars to rent, but Waste Management was willing to donate them until next week.
Sonora Vets Helping Vets also donated shovels to help with the cleanup.
“The everyday things that we as a community take for granted are not within their grasp,” Mitchell said. “They aren’t lazy or unaware — they feel defeated.”
There is still enough trash in the camps off both sides of Stockton Road and along Woods Creek near the Highway 108 overpass to likely fill at least three or four more 40-yard trash containers.
The cleanup will continue at 8 a.m. Saturday morning. They are planning to take a break on Sunday and return to it at 8 a.m. Monday morning.
Mitchell said they could use more shovels and a front-loading tractor to pick up some of the heftier piles of trash.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.