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Despair & confusion hound Sleepy Hollow residents
State housing agents fill out violation forms against owners of a total 21 vehicles in the Sleepy Hollow Trailer Court. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Startled, the dog tore down the driveway and around the corner, ignoring his owner’s commands.

“Lucky! … Lucky!” Chris Hill barked, rising from a folding chair, his gravelly voice cutting a line through the morning chill.

“Get over here.”

With slumped shoulders and a slight limp, Hill, a broken man with a shattered spirit, shuffled off after his little pup.

He found him near the center of Sleepy Hollow Trailer Court – where a group clustered around a dumpster rolling cigarettes – bouncing and yapping at the feet of a neighbor.

“You better get this dog on a leash,” the man warned Hill, “before he catches a steel toe. He doesn’t want to mess with these size 14s.”

Around here, even the Lucky ones aren’t so lucky.

About 50 residents occupying 21 mobile homes were told last Friday that they had five days to vacate the property by owner Mahesh Gogri, a Bay Area native with properties throughout Northern California.

Gogri was accompanied by a Housing and Community Development task force and Manteca Police. Some serious muscle.

Agents with the task force found the living conditions to be in violation of the health and safety code, and marked the homes with orange notices. Like scarlet letters.

The message: Clean up or else.

Since then, confusion has reigned, filling the pathways and porches of this run-down community. Some live in fear of the Gogri’s lock and tow truck, while others have decided to dig their heels in.

That five-day notice came due on Thursday with a few moments of made-for-TV drama. Gogri’s visit included an appearance by the Manteca Police, one resident said, and cries of harassment from both sides, but nary an eviction.

All of which means this sad, pathetic saga will stretch on.

“(The state) said if you clean up, you’re fine,” said Nancy Bertram, a 12-year resident; one of the few with a rental agreement. “… I’m going to ride this out as long as I can.”

Somewhere in the middle of this tug-o-war between owner and tenant is Chris Hill, who doesn’t have an agreement with Gogri.

Hill stood out front of his dead 1975 Dodge motor home with his hands buried in his pockets. With tired eyes, he surveyed his life – in stacks and piles.

“It’s a mess,” said the 52-year-old former truck driver and mechanic, who moved to Sleepy Hollow more than a year ago with his wife and two teen-aged children.

The Hills had spent their last $500 on the motor home after Hill lost his job as a truck driver, and he hoped Sleepy Hollow would be a temporary bridge to a permanent residence.

“It’s been a steady downhill since,” he said on Thursday, weaving his way through his life’s collection strewn about his lot.

The Dodge is entombed by stuff. Odd stuff. Sentimental stuff. Broken stuff. Dirty stuff.

Computer guts spill out of boxes and crates in the driveway, a tangled web of wires and cables and plugs.

Half a bicycle — yes, half a bicycle – keeps a 3 ½-foot mound of rain-soaked clothes from spilling onto the asphalt.

An inordinate amount of luggage collects in a corner, waiting there as if the Hills were gearing up for a winter getaway.

There are bald car tires, bicycle tire tubes, a single ski, vases and more gizmos and gadgets than a RadioShack. Hill’s tools – remnants of a former, more prosperous life – are scattered throughout.

“You want a lawnmower?” he asks. “I don’t even have a lawn to mow.”

At the rear of the property, adjacent to a shed door, live wire sprouts from the ground like flower stems.

“That’s the main power line,” he said.

Hill, who said his family once went eight months without electricity at Sleepy Hollow, wrapped the wires himself with black tape. Repeated requests to have it fixed by a professional hand, he said, were ignored.

He says the living conditions are substandard because Mahesh and Sleepy Hollow’s various managers over the years have allowed the park to deteriorate.

The gas has been shut off for months, bemoaned Bertram, and the communal wash room gutted.

“I think they’ve overlooked the problems in this park, because there’s an element they’d like to keep in one place,” Hill said. “They know where everyone is. Still, I don’t think it’s their responsibility to look after me. I’m 52. I’m ultimately responsible for everything that’s happened to me.”

What’s next?

The consensus, it seems, is to call Gogri’s bluff; to test his patience.

Only one tenant has moved following last Friday’s notice. Betty Tankersley, a Sleepy Hollow resident for 42 years, says she’s looking for an apartment and has been given a month extension.

The rest aren’t budging.

Or, in the case of the Hills, can’t budge.

The vacated lot near Sherman Avenue was quickly turned into a horseshoe pit (how’s that for a sense of urgency?), and the wash room has become a bunkhouse.

 “A lot of people think, ‘Well, if we could just get an attorney.’ I’m looking at this realistically – when they come out here and put their locks on, we’re out,” Hill said. “We’re all in the same boat and it’s sinking.”

Hill is a man without options.

He can’t move the Dodge. It needs gas. It needs tires. It needs a radiator. And it needs a licensed driver, of which he is not.

He can’t afford to fix the Dodge or his driving record, because he’s been out of work since October 2011. He and the family survive on what can be unearthed from dumpsters and garbage cans and eventually recycled. He panhandles, too.

The residents have been given information on re-housing and shelters throughout San Joaquin County, but because of stipulations and distance, Hill doesn’t qualify or care.

 “We need help,” he said. “Specific help.”

A little luck, too, and not the four-legged kind.