Lathrop — like any other community — has a homeless problem.
But unlike other communities, the homeless problem could imperil the community.
That’s because a number of homeless in the Lathrop area have taken to digging holes into the base of levees designed to hold back the San Joaquin River at high water levels.
And in some cases those “holes” lead to large rooms.
Homeless creating caves in levees was cited last year by San Joaquin County officials as an urgent public safety concern in clearing out encampments around rivers, sloughs, and creeks elsewhere in the county. In several instances county officials said the homeless were compromising support structures for bridges on some rural roads based on how they were building makeshift shelters.
While San Joaquin County communities like Stockton, Manteca, Tracy, and Lodi are working overtime to try and solve the emerging homeless crisis that is plaguing California, Lathrop’s homeless issue is largely invisible.
Lack of downtown means
Lathrop doesn’t have place
for homeless to congregate
Because of the layout of the city – which is split in half by Interstate 5 and doesn’t have a dedicated “downtown” area as other cities in the county – many of the issues with the homeless are relegated to the outskirts of the community and oftentimes outside of the city limits into the jurisdiction of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.
But just because they aren’t as visible as they are in other locations, said Lathrop Police Chief Ryan Biedermannn, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
“We have issues from time to time when individuals that are homeless will come into commercial centers and panhandle and we’ll respond and have to tell them to move along,” Biedermann said. “We treat them with dignity and humanity and often times they respond respectfully and we’re able to resolve the situation before it becomes a criminal issue or something like that.
“It’s not really the pervasive issue that we see in other parts of the county, but we do get issues from time to time and when they’re obstructing traffic or something like that, it’s something that we have to address.”
According to Biedermann, his agency deals with many of the same struggles that others in San Joaquin County do when it comes to dealing with homeless issues as they arise – chiefly court decisions that have tied the hands of law enforcement when it comes to handling quality of life issues like public camping, and there isn’t much that they can do outside of enforcing local ordinances.
But the majority of Lathrop’s homeless population, however, appears to be located outside of the populated areas and situated in close proximity to the San Joaquin River or other rural areas that are out of the way.
And that fact – and the places that the homeless elect to set up encampments – creates an entirely new set of challenges for first responders who may come across them.
Homeless “shelters” create
safety issue for fire personnel
For Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely, the rural setting typically means that it will be his firefighters that will encounter the homeless when they respond to rural fire calls that come from unattended cooking or warming fires that are set in encampments throughout the winter.
Sometimes even the location of the encampments – which can be dug out and into the ground – can be the biggest hazard.
“One of the things that we come across are shelters that are dug out into the ground, and they can be pretty deep – they’re like rooms that are dug in so they can’t be seen,” Neely said. “If we have a fire out there and we’re walking around in the dark sometimes those are hard to see – and there are other holes that are dug for human waste that create issues.
“And that doesn’t even take into account the times that they actually dig into the levee which poses its own problems.”
It was only several years ago that high water threatened the integrity of the levee system in in South Manteca, and Lathrop Manteca firefighters were actually on the levee when it began to break – sending water into a nearby field and prompting the evacuation of a hundreds of homes that are located south of the Highway 120 Bypass.
Having holes cut into those levees at that time, Neely said, would have greatly impacted their ability to withhold the massive amount of water that was flowing through the channel – potentially leading to widespread flooding.
“We’ve had issues where fires have gotten out of control, and just today we had a call to put out a fire at an encampment near the river,” Neely said. “And with the soil makeup that we have here in this part of the valley, these dug in shelters aren’t stable – and what is being done to the levees is something that we absolutely have to monitor.
“When we come across something of that nature, it isn’t being overlooked as much as it has been in past years – we’re making sure that we can get the sheriff out there with the resources that they have to help these people when they need it.”
Biedermannn believes that one of the advantages that Lathrop has in being contracted through the San Joaquin County Sherriff’s Office is access to the resources that the county can provide those who need assistance with everything from housing vouchers to bus passes as well as providing them essential items for daily survival in some cases.
Most of the homeless
looking to be left alone
Even with the issues they encounter, however, Biedermannn said that most of the homeless are just looking to be left alone – especially at places like the makeshift encampment that has sprung up in the remnants of the old Mossdale trailer park on the south side of the river along I-5.
And more often than not, he said, the people there are willing to work with officers if it means getting somebody out of there that is attracting attention.
“We’ve gotten some pretty good witnesses and intelligence out of there because they just want to be left alone,” Biedermann said. “We had an issue where somebody was going into the new development at Mossdale and just trying to open car doors and steal change that was in the vehicles.
“When we ask, they’ll point somebody out because they don’t want people out there that are going to be doing things that are going to bring us back out there.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.