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Homeless camps sliding by during virus crisis?
• Railroad suspends cleanups of camps like ones in Ceres
homeless on tracks
Despite the practice being illegal and dangerous, homeless people have been living in an encampment on Union Pacific Railroad property in Ceres. Since this photo was taken a month ago, the camp has doubled in size and is littered with debris.

Concerns have been growing over homeless camps along Highway 99 that appear to be going unchallenged in Ceres during the coronavirus lockdown.

One such camp that has grown in recent months is the one in the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way about 15 feet from the railroad tracks that rumbles multiple times daily with the passage of freight trains. A number of homeless people have been seen accessing the camp near the east edge of the Penske truck rental facility from the Whitmore Avenue overpass. Considering the difficulty in reaching the spot, the amount of debris accumulating at the site is astounding. The encampment has been growing this year and includes large garbage containers, shopping carts taken from the Save Mart parking lot, a mattress, bed frame, broken-down pop-up tent, a wooden pallet and buckets.

It is illegal to trespass on railroad right-of-way because of the great danger it poses to those who could walk onto a track or be wiped out in a derailment of box cars. Because there are no restroom facilities there are great concerns about bio hazard from human waste.

A Union Pacific Railroad spokesperson acknowledged on Tuesday that the company stopped cleaning up camps in recent months.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the precautions put in place by state and local governments, we have temporarily suspended cleanup efforts, unless there is an imminent threat to our employees or train traffic,” said Kristen South, UP’s senior director of Corporate Communications & Media Relations.

She also said that Union Pacific owns and operates more than 32,000 track miles “many of which are in communities, like Ceres, that have experienced an increase in their homeless populations. Despite our efforts, unlawful encampments are set up on our right of way, along with dumping, graffiti and other illegal activities by third parties. Homelessness is a growing social problem that state and local governments are struggling to get their arms around.”

South continued: “Trespassing on railroad property is unsafe and creates a hazard for the public, as well as for Union Pacific employees. Our special agents periodically patrol Union Pacific property and work with local contractors to prevent recurrence of encampments and illegal dumping. We also work with local authorities to enforce criminal trespass laws on our property and to deter other illegal activities.”

Caltrans has also been unable to keep up with cleaning up homeless camps along the freeway. Near the northbound Hatch Road off-ramp, occupants of a camp inside of the oleanders are routinely seen walking on the freeway shoulder just feet away from passing traffic. The area has been clogged with hundreds of pounds of debris as well.

More than 1,920 homeless people – of which approximately 250 are children – were counted in Stanislaus County in 2019, almost 600 more than 2018. That 2019 survey indicated that 24 were in Ceres, two in Hughson and 10 in Keyes. Right across the river, Modesto recorded 1,400 homeless people. 

Homelessness has been a longstanding problem in the past several years but until the homeless shelter under the Ninth Street Bridge was cleared out in Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES), the problem has spilled out into Ceres.  The MOES site was a joint effort made possible with funding from the city of Modesto and Stanislaus County, and operated by non-profit organizations co-located on the complex.

There’s been lots of talk and lots of money thrown at the problem, said county Supervisor Jim DeMartini, but he said it’s made little dent on the problem. In March he told the Courier: “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.”

He said the county has plenty of programs to help the drug-addicted homeless but the key is they must want change.