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Homeless tunneling into city overpass
underpass hole
This is a tunnel/cave Manteca firefighters came across under the Cottage Avenue overpass Wednesday after extinguishing a fire.

A cave dug out of the dirt that supports one of the approaches for the Cottage Avenue bridge across Highway 99 is prompting calls from some city leaders for Caltrans to try to find ways to keep the homeless from potentially undermining roadways.

The cave that was about 8 feet deep was discovered by Manteca firefighters Wednesday afternoon after they extinguished a nearby grass fire.

The hole did not cause any structural damage to the roadway. Caltrans was notified and crews responded to fill the hole.

Manteca Police Chief Jodie Estarziau is hopeful Caltrans will be able to find ways to better secure freeway right-of-ways and now overpasses in a bid to assure the public’s safety as well as that of the homeless.

She agreed with Mayor Ben Cantu that the possible use of wrought iron fence to secure problematic freeway right-of-ways might be the best solution.

“They can’t cut through it and it is very difficult to climb over,” Estarziau said.

The police chief recalled that just over four years similar caves had been dug out of the embankment of the Louise Avenue overcrossing of Highway 99 on the northeast corner.

Cantu agreed that ways need to be found to “homeless proof” areas where the presence of homeless compromises public safety and that of the homeless themselves.

Manteca Fire personnel have expressed concern about the homeless setting up illegal encampments between the sound walls behind the three apartment complexes along Atherton Drive and the high embankment along the accident prone eastbound lanes of the 120 Bypass.

The area over the years has seen several grass fires as well as several vehicles that have left the freeway and rolled down the embankment during accidents.

With only two ways out, firefighters said a fast moving grass fire could easily trap someone.

Caltrans last week cleared out encampments that had to be first posted under court rulings. A concrete K-rail and new cyclone fencing and gate were placed north of Van Ryn Avenue between the sound wall and embankment. It is designed to keep the homeless out as well as vehicles they have been driving into the area to live in. The homeless likely will be able to cut the cyclone fence as they have in the past and climb over the K-rail but they won’t be able to get a vehicle in.

Caltrans had new fencing and gate installed on the east side of Van Ryn between the freeway and Tesoro Apartments.

As that was being installed, the homeless started moving back into the area farther down setting up tents behind the Juniper apartments complex getting around a K-rail and fencing just west of Moffat Boulevard and the railroad tracks.

The illegal encampments now being set up can’t be cleared until they are posted.

Caltrans earlier this year addressed safety concerns around the Interstate 5 and Highway 4 interchange in Stockton regarding the homeless by spending $1.35 million installing wrought iron fencing to secure state right-of-way along the freeways. It has eliminated the need for Caltrans to send crews into the area on what was almost a month basis to clear out illegal encampments after they had been posted.

Cantu is hopeful that Caltrans will use wrought iron fencing to address similar freeway safety issues in Manteca where plausible such as the Cottage and Louise overcrossings of Highway 99 as well as the area between the apartments and the 120 Bypass.

Cantu noted the K-rail along Van Ryn next door to the apartment complex is unsightly as well.

The homeless jeopardizing the integrity of infrastructure and creating safety issues isn’t limited to Manteca.

San Joaquin County — under an encampment management policy adopted in April to address healthy and safety issues involving homeless living in makeshift shelter on county land and public right-of-way — has cleared out five illegal camps.

Three of the camps have cost the county $32,318 to clear out while the final tab for the other two has yet to be determined.

Among issues the county used to justify posting the homeless camps and eventually clearing them out were:

digging holes to erect partitions that threatened the integrity of levee embankments.

starting a fire that caused significant damage to a county bridge.

burning a neighbor’s fence.

proximity of an encampment to a Head Start program.

a proliferation of needles and human feces along with chemical waste left in the open.

excessive trash that was attracting rodents.

makeshift fire pits near overgrown vegetation.

the discovery of stolen items by sheriff deputies that also have broken up fights and arrested fugitives at several of the camps.

attaching shelters to bridge pillars.

The county’s policy is not just arbitrarily clearing out every homeless encampment they come across on their property or the public right-of-way. Instead the county’s Community Service Team performs a preliminary inspection of a homeless encampment. It is referred to the homeless Emergency Response Team if serious concerns are noted.

When the ERT determines a homeless encampment must be cleaned and/or closed to protect the public health, safety and welfare the social service members of the team mobilize an outreach effort to identify and engage the occupants of the encampment in an effort to connect them with services tailored to their unique needs including health services and housing assistance, if available.

Occupants are provided with a 72-hour notice to vacate prior to the scheduled clean-up/closure. They’re given a brochure with contact information for additional community services. They are also provided information on where the personal property collected at the site during a clean-up will be stored for 90 days. If an individual fails to reclaim personal property with 90 days it is deemed abandoned and subject to disposal.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email