Scattered along the stretch of Highway 99 between Service Road and downtown Modesto freeway off-ramps is a growing collection of homeless camps –marked by large piles of debris – offering visual blight impossible for motorists to ignore and shaking the heads of Chamber of Commerce folks.
One such camp south of the Hatch Road overpass – which the city’s code enforcement unit has cleared out a number of times – places occupants walking and camping dangerously just feet away from freeway traffic. Another camp with its makeshift living quarters and scattered debris greet motorists negotiating the westbound Hatch Road off-ramp.
The freeway camps have increased in Ceres after the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter camp which temporarily housed 400 people underneath the Ninth Street Bridge was closed. Half have moved over to shelters in Modesto; the other half scattered over Ceres and other parts of the county.
“These people have just scattered out,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini whose District 5 has some of the most extreme homeless camps. “It seems they’re partial to the freeway entrances. Caltrans is out there all the time cleaning up after them.”
According to DeMartini, the county just recently hauled out 30 truckloads of garbage cleaned up from a homeless enclave at Ninth Street next to the freeway.
Homelessness adding to the frustration of local officials like DeMartini and business people who blame state leadership for the problem.
“There’s no accountability for their actions at all,” asserts the supervisor. “They don’t have to live like that. They choose to. We have unused beds at the Salvation Army and (Modest Union) Gospel Mission that they have rules there. You can’t have drugs or alcohol so they want to live the live the drug culture so they’re out on the street like that and just raising havoc with the community … begging and stealing and open drug use and haul around trash. It’s just horrible what society has become.”
Throwing money at the problem is not helping, he said.
“Last year in Stanislaus County we spent $35 million on the homeless and I’ll tell you it’s gotten us nothing. The problem is still there. It’s just as bad or worse than it was the year before and $35 million is gone. It’s not like we give it to the homeless. It all goes out to our non-profits and our social workers and there’s no results. Your results have to be getting people off of drugs and back in the workforce. We have plenty of programs and availability for anyone who wants to get off of drugs.”
DeMartini said Caltrans is typically good about cleaning up the camps but it appears that the state agency has made no attempt at cleanup in Ceres in some time.
DeMartini said the county spends at least $400,000 to clean up trash along county roads but the new budget is adding another $200,000 to clean up alleys in unincorporated areas like south Modesto.
“Our whole society is degrading and it’s because of drug abuse and no consequences for your actions. Especially since Prop 47 passed. There’s no consequence for these people. They have the lifestyle they really like. They don’t have to work. They get everything for free. They’re not held accountable for anything that they do and they spend their time shoplifting and panhandling, whatever they can to raise money for their drugs.”
Proposition 47, passed by the voters in 2014, reduced the penalties for thefts of goods valued at under $950. DeMartini said voters have been duped into passing such measures because Democrat state attorneys general have mislabeled them. For example, Prop. 47 was labeled the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act by then state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
“That’s getting to be a real problem here in California, especially with this Attorney General Becerra. He writes these fantasy titles, masking what they are.”
“We’ve got to get rid of Prop 47.”
He also said AB 109, which emptied out state prisons of lower level offenders of mostly drug offenders, was the start of the problem.
DeMartini, a lifelong resident and farmer of the Westport area, is leaving California’s liberal policies for Reno, Nevada when he retires at the end of this year.
“I just think California is a basket case.”
Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said city code enforcement is on top of camps within the city but considers the whole practice of cracking down as a game of “whack-a-mole.”
“What they’ve figured out is where they have more time,” said Wells. “When they’re in the city limits, we’re on them pretty quickly. Typically we can get them moved along in a week where in the Caltrans right of way or the railroad right of way longer response times for those two agencies so it takes longer to get rustled out of there.”
The city of Ceres regularly reports homeless camps along the freeway to Caltrans and the CHP.
He said he learned that Caltrans cleaned up one freeway camp near Lander Avenue in Turlock and the persons set up camp immediately on the other side where they could buy three to four weeks until cleared out again.
“We’re just pushing people around and some of these folks clearly do not want help. There’s available beds in the county every night. You’ve got a very liberal state that doesn’t hold anybody accountable for their actions.”
Renee Ledbetter, a local real estate agent and Ceres Chamber of Commerce official, agrees that state leadership is causing California to go “to hell in a hand basket.”
“It’s frustrating because who has the answer. I know we’re facing it all up and down the state and nobody really seems to have a good resolution for this.
“I do know that it’s impacting businesses because we’re seeing more and more homeless people camping out in front of businesses,” said Ledbetter. She said homeless have camped out in the shopping center where her EXIT Realty office is located at Service and Mitchell roads.
She expressed greatest concern for motorists and those camping in the oleanders along the freeway.
“I don’t understand why Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol isn’t doing anything to get them off the freeway. I just don’t get it.”
Farther south in Turlock, one homeless man has set up a prominent tent camp between Highway 99 and the back side of Hobby Lobby and has been seen dragging assortment of materials over a wire fence to build walls for an illegal habitat.
The growing problem in Stanislaus County is symptomatic of a larger problem statewide. In 2019, an estimated 151,278 homeless people were in California, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's the highest number since at least 2007, and represents a nearly 17% uptick since 2018. While about one in nine Americans lives in California, roughly one in four homeless Americans live here.
The United Nations has compared the tent encampments of San Francisco to the slums of New Delhi and Mexico City. Nearly 5,000 people live in the half square mile of Los Angeles’ Skid Row and while the problem is most acute in urban centers, homelessness is now a common fixture in smaller cities in Stanislaus County. State and local officials have pledged billions in recent years to help, but voters remain frustrated by a lack of visible progress.
Why the uptick? There are many answers, including the increased use and addiction to methamphetamine. Unfortunately, physicians say meth addiction is confoundingly difficult to treat. While methadone is available to wean heroin addicts off of opioids, no such replacement medication exists for meth. Worse still, meth can exacerbate existing mental illnesses.
Local officials say the courts are frustrating efforts to crackdown on homeless using parks intended for all persons to enjoy. A federal court decision in 2018 ruled that a ban against camping in Boise, Idaho parks was unconstitutional and that cities can’t cite people for sleeping on public property when they have no other place to hunker down.
Caltrans was sued for clearing East Bay encampments around its highways and under overpasses. To settle claims that it illegally destroyed the property of the homeless left on state land, Caltrans has agreed to pay $5.5 million. If the deal is approved on March 10 in Alameda County Superior Court, Caltrans will pay $1.3 million to compensate homeless plaintiffs in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville — paying out up to $5,500 per person; plus another $700,000 to the nonprofit Homeless Action Center, plus $3.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
The settlement also forces Caltrans to take steps to prevent the destruction of property during future sweeps throughout the state. Caltrans will have to give a 48-hour notice to give the homeless time to remove belongings. The state also has to impound unclaimed belongings for 60 days to give residents the option to retrieve them; if not claimed they will be destroyed.