Alan Fulkerson said he used to complain to his wife about seeing piles of trash near homeless camps along Stockton Road, but then she reminded him of the saying, “If you’re not willing to help, then you’re part of the problem.”
Fulkerson, of Jamestown, became one of several volunteers who pitched in their time and resources for a five-day cleanup effort at the end of January that was spearheaded by the homeless themselves.
“A little bit of kindness goes a long way sometimes,” he said Tuesday while reflecting on the experience.
The amount of garbage removed was enough to fill five trash containers that each could hold 20 yards worth of material, as opposed to 40 yards as previously reported.
An average 20-yard container has a maximum weight allowance of about 4 tons, or 8,000 pounds.
Cal Sierra Disposal, a subsidiary of Waste Management, donated four of the trash containers, while a donor who wanted to remain anonymous provided $510 for a fifth container.
Fulkerson brought his John Deere 310 backhoe to move some of the heftier piles of trash. He previously worked as an equipment operator for the City of San Francisco before retiring 12 years ago.
“I did it mostly for the environment … I know eventually that stuff will end up in Don Pedro (Reservoir),” he said. “I did it for the people, too. I like people who help themselves.”
One of the things that stood out to Fulkerson about the experience was the difference between the people he met and what he previously assumed about people who are homeless.
Fulkerson said several homeless men helped him replace a tire on his backhoe when one blew out while he was working, and he encountered several people whom he wouldn’t expect to be homeless had they met in a different setting.
“I expected more people on drugs, some of them were and some of them weren’t, but I met some very interesting people who didn’t seem like they belonged there,” he said.
Anthony Eakin has been homeless for several years and helped pick up trash during the five-day effort. He recalled how many rats scurried out of piles of trash as Fulkerson scooped them up with his backhoe.
Eakin said he felt “grateful” and “so happy” to see the non-homeless volunteers who donated their time and equipment to help, and it has given him some additional motivation to seek help in getting out of his situation.
“I hope this means good things,” he said. “Some of us don’t want to be here… I have to be until I can get some income and transportation.”
Earl Randall, 87, of Tuolumne, was another volunteer who helped throughout the five days. He brought his 18-foot trailer that the homeless loaded with trash so he could haul it to the containers.
Randall took one trailer load to the county dump because the trash containers were too full.
“They did the work,” he said of the homeless. “Nobody has ever done anything for these people to put stuff in, so they threw it on the ground.”
Getting rid of trash is one of the hardships for people living in the camps, because they don’t have an easy way to dispose of it. The county dump is about six miles from some of the encampments, and they aren’t allowed to bring bags of trash on public transit.
Randall said the areas that were cleaned out look “100 percent better” than they did previously, but he acknowledged that there’s still more work to be done in other areas after the weather gets better.
Paul Lee, who has been homeless for the past three-plus years, said on Tuesday that they are still seeing people who aren’t homeless dumping their unwanted items and household trash near the camps.
Some recent items that have shown up in the past few days include bags of trash, a wooden cabinet, bottles of weed killer, a handsaw, and an empty box for a set of 12 drinking glasses.
Lee said the five-day cleanup effort went well, but they need to have a trash container nearby more often to keep trash from piling up again.
“We’ll fill it up,” he said.
A lot has also happened within the homeless community since the cleanup occurred.
Two people who camped in the area have died after being hit by vehicles in the past month, and another homeless man was recently found dead after being missing since December.
About 50 homeless people and several advocates gathered at Woods Creek Rotary Park on Saturday to remember the fallen.
Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of the Jamestown-based nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance, worked with Cal Sierra Disposal to get the trash containers donated for the cleanup project at the request of the homeless.
Mitchell also provided support throughout the process, which included bringing food and sodas for those who were lending a hand.
City of Sonora Administrator Tim Miller is helping Mitchell make arrangements with Cal Sierra Disposal to get a 2-yard trash bin placed near the camps that would be emptied out on a regular basis.
Miller said they are still working out the details on the location and frequency of pick ups, but the company has agreed to a four-week trial period while Mitchell works on finding a sponsor for keeping it out there after that.
Mitchell is also looking for sponsors willing to help get portable bathrooms and washing stations placed at the camps.
“Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of health issues by them not having a place to go to the bathroom or a place to put their garbage and rats infesting everything,” she said. “We’re contaminating the streams, contaminating the property, and the homeless don’t want to do that but there’s no place for them to go.”
For more information, Mitchell said to contact her organization at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-8377.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.