STOCKTON — The people illegally camping along Mormon Slough have come to anticipate the monthly uprooting during Caltrans’ cleanup efforts, but homeless individuals and advocates said enforcement has become more aggressive.
On Thursday morning — just short of a month since the last visit — Caltrans and law enforcement officers from the California Highway Patrol and Stockton Police Department arrived at a stretch of land bordered by the slough and Interstate 5 to evict anyone who was illegally camping. It was one of five sites in Stockton cleared out that day.
Mary Foshe, a volunteer with Stockton 209 Cares, arrived with her fiance and red F-150 truck just after 5 a.m. Thursday to help people pack up their belongings and move out.
They were able to take out four truckloads of items before Stockton police arrived and denied access to the path, she said.
Foshee, who drove from her home in Tracy, said she was on her way out of the area when her truck was surrounded by uniformed officers, who she said had been waiting at an entrance off of Weber Avenue.
“They questioned me for 15 to 20 minutes telling me that I was trespassing,” she said, her voice breaking.
Nancy Lamb, founder of Stockton 209 Cares, who was also at the site, said volunteers who tried to help the homeless people were threatened with arrest. Lamb said she told an officer she was there to help, but his response was that it was illegal for them to help the homeless remove their items.
“It’s getting worse,” she said. “I will work with the police in any aspect, but today was very callous.”
The Police Department had eight officers at the time of the cleanup at the request of Caltrans and the CHP, said Stockton police spokesman Officer Joe Silva. Stockton officers were not there to take enforcement action but to make sure that none of the people who were being vacated were coming onto city property to leave their belongings or set up a new encampment, he said.
One woman was seen driving on the private property and was told she was not allowed to be there, Silva said. And there were also people who tried to get back onto the property but were turned away because that’s considered trespassing, he said.
According to Caltrans, notices were given to residents of that specific camp on Monday. In the notice, which is customary, the people staying there were informed they had 72 hours to remove their property and leave.
Greg Lawson, Caltrans public information officer for District 10, said people illegally camping are aware that Caltrans is coming and it is best to pack of their belongings and move before they arrive, but he added that Caltrans won’t stop people from taking items once the agency is there.
“They’re more than welcome to do that,” he said.
Advocates and three homeless women who were there Thursday morning said that wasn’t the case.
Patricia Henderson, 46, who has been living there since February, said she had a rolling cooler with items neatly packed and ready to go the night before, but when she arrived to the Weber Avenue gate Thursday morning she was told she could take only what she could carry in her hands.
“They wouldn’t let us roll anything out,” she said, adding that with the help from one “kind” Stockton police officer, she was able to grab her tent, sleeping bag and food for her dog, Champ.
Unable to cart away items, people said they left behind food, blankets, clothes, utensils, medication, photos and documents, which were reportedly piled up and then thrown away by Caltrans.
“I don’t know why they target us the hardest,” Henderson said.
By Thursday afternoon, some people had already returned to rebuild their camps.
As Henderson walked the dirt path toward her spot, she pointed out the litter and garbage left behind. Caltrans isn’t here for the trash, she said.
“They just go after our personal items — what I don’t get is what’s the reason?” she asked.
The enforcement efforts are making people do crazy things, Henderson said. People are digging holes to hide their possessions, they’re hiding it in water, and they’re doing whatever they can to hold on to the few things they own.
“Today was one of the hardest days, because I watched people lose their stuff,” said 50-year-old Ana Montes, who also lived near the slough. “I watched their faces.”
Montes herself lost many items, including a necklace with her husband’s ashes.
Thursday’s experience was degrading, Foshee said. People arrived with strollers, wagons, carts and bikes to the gate only to be told they couldn’t take their items. The homeless people didn’t anticipate that law enforcement would come out in force like they did, she added.
The CHP, which is the law enforcement agency responsible for responding, said they had three officers in the encampments, but those officers didn’t have contact with people.
CHP spokesman Dan Sepulveda said Stockton police officers were at the scene before the CHP, and by the time CHP officers arrived, there were no incidents, arrests or citations, he said.
Lawson said Caltrans doesn’t prevent people from taking their items, but if someone is seen with a shopping cart, someone from the city will tell them to remove their items, because the cart is private property.
As far as why people weren’t allowed to leave with their items on stroller, wagons or any other rolling mechanism, neither the CHP, Caltrans or Stockton police answered whether it was unlawful past the 72-hour period.
Homeless people are tired of losing their belongings, Foshee and Lamb said. More than 30 people living near the slough were affected by Thursday’s cleanup.
Stockton 209 Cares said recent actions by Caltrans and law enforcement and inaction from the city of Stockton have prompted the nonprofit group to consider holding a protest outside City Hall.
Foshee said: “Stockton keeps making promises that they can’t keep.”
— Contact reporter Almendra Carpizo at (209) 546-8264 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AlmendraCarpizo.