Lennette Boyd was among the few remaining homeless residents at Camp Hope on Aug. 5 who were waiting for the day they will be forced to leave.

The 34-year-old says she’s been homeless for half of her life and spent the past seven years primarily living at the encampment that's located on private land off Stockton Road, which Tuolumne County has ordered to be vacated over rampant code violations and environmental concerns.

“It’s almost like home,” Boyd, a Tuolumne County native, said. “I’ve had nowhere else.” 

Boyd said she spent several years under the care of different siblings following her mother’s death when she was 13, before she started living on the streets on her own at 17.

She spent a couple months over the past year staying in a hotel room provided through Project Roomkey, a federally funded homeless housing initiative launched by the state of California in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I tried a room, but it’s bad when you’ve been out here this long. You get cooped up,” she said at Camp Hope on Aug. 5. “I did that for a month or two and had to come back because this is home.”

Notices posted at the camp in May gave 90 days to vacate the area, with one saying Aug. 9 and another saying Aug. 12, though when the remaining residents will actually be told they have to leave remained unclear as of Monday.

Kellae Brown, the county homeless outreach coordinator, was unable to speak at length on Monday about the camp’s status but said she hoped to have an update later in the week.

“The county is actively continuing to work with the individuals on the site to get them services, as well as with the property owners and CalRecycle on securing the property,” said county Community Development Director Quincy Yaley in an email on Monday.

Caltrans District 10 crews and Byron-based contractor Dillard Environmental Services were at the encampment Monday morning to clean out trash and debris from an abandoned campsite close to Stockton Road, which required one-way traffic control for several hours.

The work was not tied to the pending closure of the longtime homeless camp by Tuolumne County in conjunction with the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle, according to Caltrans spokesman Rick Estrada.

Residents skeptical over closure

Several of the people still living at the camp on Monday expressed frustration and worry about the looming closure.

Russell LaPorte, 43, has lived at the camp for six years and was waiting for a ride on Monday at one of the entrances with his six dogs. He said he’ll likely just find another spot to camp because he lacks enough money to rent a place, and shelters in the area won’t allow him to stay with his beloved pups.

“They’re more than just dogs,” he said. “They keep me sane and happy. I would leave everything else for them.”

LaPorte said he doesn’t buy the reasoning given by the county and state over why they are being forced to leave, which largely centers around health concerns due to soil contamination from the property formerly being operated as a burn dump until 1965.

The late Larry Rotelli, whose family has owned the property for generations, had given his blessing to allow people to continue living there prior to his death in April last year. 

However, county officials met with Rotelli, his wife and homeless advocates with the Jamestown-based nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance in February 2020 to inform them of an investigation that resulted in the state ordering the county to have the site vacated for remediation.

LaPorte said he believes the reason for shutting down the camp has more to do with its reputation and blighted appearance than the soil being unhealthy, as he and others who have lived there for even longer than him haven’t experienced any health effects.

Many residents of Camp Hope say the homeless get a bad rap for the trash accumulation at the site, much of which they say is illegally dumped there by people who aren’t homeless.

There was evidence of illegal dumping on Monday, such as a washer and dryer.

Helping to transition

Ahead of the impending closure of Camp Hope, the county has spent the past several months working with nonprofit organizations to reach out to its residents and offer resources to help with their transition.

The camp has been said to have a fluctuating population of between 50 and 70 people at any given time, though it’s estimated about 15 currently remain.

Brown said the team helping people with the transition out of Camp Hope has “made every attempt to speak to everyone down there and offer them services.”

“Of course we could miss people because we don’t know everyone’s name, address and phone number,” she said. “When you go out there 20 to 30 times, you hope you get everyone.”

Brown said they’ve had a team at the camp since May 9 on a weekly basis and have housed 48 of its residents, as well as offered resources and put up notices “all over campus.”

Agencies that Brown said have been part of the effort include social services, adult protective services, public health, behavioral health, the county administrator’s office, community development, and county supervisors. 

Nonprofits have brought food and other items, while case management has been provided by organizations serving as contractors that include Resiliency Village, Give Someone a Chance, Nancy’s Hope, and The Refuge Recovery Center.

Mark Dyken, co-founder and chief executive officer of Resiliency Village, said most of the more than 50 people his organization has taken in as part of the program have been former residents of the camp.

“Probably almost 100% of the women we took in have suffered child abuse, domestic violence or sexual assault, and many have been victims of all three,” he said. “There’s nothing that makes someone wake up and want to be homeless, something puts them in that position.”

Many of the people Dyken’s organization have taken in have been provided temporary housing in local motels and hotels using Project Roomkey funds, though he said the money will run out at the end of the month.

Dyken said some of the clients they’re currently serving they plan to include as part of their pilot project of developing a tiny-home community with onsite centered on a property they recently purchased off Jenny Lind Road in the Big Hill area outside of Sonora.

There are some people like Boyd who aren’t ready to take the next step yet and immerse themselves in the structure of the rehabilitative program they plan to offer, Dyken said.

“It is really close to impossible for some of the people who have lived there a long time,” he said, adding that some with severe addiction programs are held back just at the prospect of painful symptoms that come with withdrawing from substances.

Fostering a sense of community

Hazel and Dick Mitchell had helped homeless residents at Camp Hope long before they gave it the name when they launched a pilot program there in early 2019 to help meet the residents' basic needs.

In 2012, the Mitchells co-founded their organization Give Someone a Chance, which provides aid to the homeless for food, water, transportation, clothing, hygiene, and case management. They also developed a bus that provides mobile showers multiple days per week.

The Mitchells began organizing resources and agencies to provide such amenities at Camp Hope as regular garbage collection, portable toilets and a tank for drinking water, all of which collectively cost $1,400 per month to maintain.

“They started to pull together and want to become a community instead of just a homeless camp,” Hazel Mitchell said. “They started to really want to help each other, which was a huge step in the right direction.”

Dick Mitchell said other people and groups in the community then began seeing it as a central location where they could help the homeless on a more personal level and began to bring food and other supplies on a regular basis.

They even were able to work with the Sheriff’s Office to formally evict two residents that were known to push drugs on the others. 

Hazel Mitchell said she has documentation to prove that they managed to get 22 people successfully out of the camp and reunited with family who took them in, or steady jobs and their own place.

The situation started to deteriorate early last year when it came out that the state was ordering the county to begin the process of shutting down the camp over health concerns related to the property’s historical use as a burn dump.

“When the county came in to shut the thing down, there was no hope of anything going further so they just gave up and the druggies just came back,” Dick Mitchell explained.

However, all hope is not lost, and the Mitchells still plan to move forward with other initiatives.

Among them is their longtime dream of finding a piece of land to develop a campground in the model of Kampgrounds of America, which they hope could then be modeled in other locations throughout the county.

Feeling left behind

Kristy Canham, 37, has lived at Camp Hope off and on for the past three years and said on Monday that she hasn’t seen people from the county out there as much as they say.

“They made it sound like they’ve been begging to help us, but they have not,” she said. 

Canham said the addition of the toilets and water tank helped to give people there a sense of community, but she also believes it may have provided too much comfort for some. She plans to likely move to the other side of Stockton Road, where a number of other camps are located.

The situation at Camp Hope began to deteriorate last year, Canham said, when the City of Sonora shut down a homeless encampment behind Lowe’s where people who had previously been kicked out of Camp Hope were living.

“There’s actually some normal, decent people out here just trying to survive,” she said.

Mary Lynn Ashburn and Grace Darrin, both members of the St. James Episcopal Church, were at the camp Monday morning handing out water bottles to people.

Ashburn said they began bringing food, water and other supplies to the camp last year when distribution at the church was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she can sense a heightened level of desperation among people at the camp over the past week.

“They’re people,” she said of why she helps. “They’re our community, too.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amcaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 768-5175.