By DENNIS WYATT
There is a well-traveled improvised road that runs along the south side of the 120 Bypass where the freeway starts climbing a dirt-mound to clear Van Ryn Avenue, the Union Pacific Railroad and Moffat Boulevard before meshing with Highway 99.
Up until last week between 30 and 40 people lived there making it the largest homeless encampment area in Manteca. Caltrans cleared the area out for perhaps the 10th time in three years after law enforcement properly posted the makeshift housing in accordance to legal requirements handed down by the courts. Caltrans will likely be back again before year’s end’s end to repeat the clean-up.
It is illegal for anyone to set up shop in a freeway right-of-way. The 120 Bypass, especially on the south side, is particularly problematic from a safety standpoint. The area has dry weeds plus other vegetation. It is sandwiched between high sound walls and the steep embankment. Over the years grass fires have started along the shoulder and spread down into the long gully-like area. The right conditions — dry fuel supply with flames and embers whipped up by wind — could create a deadly situation. Access to the area is only from each end of the sound wall. It hampers the ability to escape flames as well as access for firefighters to combat flames. Several years ago a fairly significant fire blackened the area being Paseo Villas and destroyed several trees.
There have also been accidents that have sent vehicles rolling down the embankment. The worst was several years ago when a truck-trailer plunged off the Bypass at Van Ryn Avenue. There have also been accidents on the north side of the 120 Bypass near Van Ryn Avenue where a smaller number of homeless form illegal encampments from time-to-time. That included a gasoline tanker that caught on fire during a Bypass collision
Caltrans gave up a long time ago trying to keep fencing and gates up to keep people out of the area. The homeless — just as they have been doing for years when they want to take a short cut across the Manteca High athletic fields to travel to and from Lincoln Park — have been cutting holes in the cyclone fencing. They then stepped up their vandalism by tearing down fencing.
That has allowed the free flow of homeless — on foot and on bicycles — for several years. A few months back the homeless upped their game and started driving vehicles to illegal encampments by driving onto the well-worn “road” by accessing it from Van Ryn Avenue behind the Paseo Villas and Tesoro apartment complexes.
Caltrans — in a bid to stop vehicle access and hopefully slow down the return of homeless encampments — this week plopped down a K-rail concrete segment blocking off access to the area between the city water well and the 120 Bypass overcrossing of Van Ryn Avenue.
It is the latest example of “homeless proofing” done by government agencies and the private sector.
The problem of homeless creating dangerous situations for themselves and the public in terms of health and safety is far from being unique to Manteca.
Homeless encampments in San Joaquin County have been compromising levees where people have burrowed into them as well as causing damage to county bridges and waterways.
Wherever they can government agencies try to think out-of-the-box to find ways to reduce safety issues without running afoul of the courts or the rights of the homeless.
Perhaps the most high profile unorthodox move by Caltrans to deal with homeless encampments is where Highway 4 — the Crosstown Freeway — meets Interstate 5 in Stockton.
For years there were dozens upon dozens of illegal encampments between the westbound transition ramp from Highway 4 to northbound Interstate 5 and a water channel. There was no fencing to stop the homeless from crossing the freeway which more than a few did.
The area is a magnet for the homeless due to the nearby St. Mary’s Dining Hall and drop in shelter. It got so bad at one point that a homeless individual pitched a tent in the median of Highway 4 on top of an overcrossing.
The Caltrans solution was to circle their right-of-way with a decorative wrought iron fence that can’t be cut or knocked down and is extremely hard to breach. It is the same solution that Manteca High will use to secure its campus against the homeless cutting their way through fencing as part of the current modernization project.
Today you can still see homeless as you go from Highway 4 to Interstate 5 but they are behind the fenced in area and along the waterway. It has addressed several Caltrans concerns such as a vehicle leaving the freeway and running over the homeless as well as the homeless being able to walk onto the freeway with ease. By encircling the area with fencing it prevented illegal camping along the shoulder plus in other right-of-way the state owns. That eliminated the need for Caltrans every three months or so to dispatch sizable crews to clear up the area as they have to do along the 120 Bypass.
It was one area along Highway 4 near Interstate 5 that Caltrans spent $1.35 million to fence off.
The 120 Bypass clean up this past week went as far as to where the 120 Bypass meets Highway 99. It cleared out the biggest thicket of illegal camping just west of Moffat Boulevard. Previously the worst concentration was below the transition ramp from eastbound 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99. That was before Caltrans removed all shrubbery and trees.
You can see other signs of “homeless proofing” throughout Manteca.
uSteel cages placed atop trash enclosures.
uThe fencing off of a privately owned historical plaza along Spreckels Avenue.
uSecuring the Manteca Library entrance courtyard with wrought iron fencing.
Business owners have resorted to caging in trash enclosures not because they want to simply stop the homeless from going through trash and throwing it about or the “housed” who dump their garbage off, although that is one of the reasons, but because they were worried about the safety of their employees and customers.
One hotel resorted to the cage enclosure after an employee taking out trash interrupted a drug deal taking place inside the enclosure and was threatened.
Most business owners have said their issues go to the homeless sleeping in the enclosures and trash bins. Often times they would leave their belongings. On some occasions businesses have reported human feces and drug paraphernalia being left being. The cage enclosures — found at commercial concerns throughout the city — have substantially reduced those problems.
The city placed a similar cage over the trash enclosure at the Manteca Transit Station after numerous attempts were made to gain entry in a bid to strip wire from the control devices for the solar energy system.
Many businesses have eliminated public restrooms after some of the homeless using them left behind substantial messes primarily associated with the trying to clean up.
More and more commercial property owners have taken to removing mature shrubs and replacing them with different landscaping that doesn’t grow as large to eliminate providing cover for homeless to sleep.
The city spent $7,000 on a wrought iron fence to secure the courtyard at the Manteca Library. It stopped the homeless from sleeping in the area overnight where they also defecated, left trash behind, and damaged lighting in a bid to charge cell phones, plus damaged a water fountain.
The city has more than recouped its investment in avoided labor and replacement costs. The Friends of the Manteca Library purchased patio furniture to allow patrons to read outside and reclaim the area.