Bernie Vigil was fed up. The Lodi resident and former corrections officer was tired of getting obscene gestures from trespassers and vagrants as they relieved themselves near his property.
Sickened by the littering, drug use and unsanitary conditions in the private wetlands near the Mokelumne River and Highway 99 where he's lived for more than 20 years, the Vietnam veteran decided to find a solution. A month ago, Vigil purchased the 11 acres of private wetlands from the development company that built his subdivision. Then he gathered his neighbors to evict the transients.
Now he's looking to transform the area into something his neighbors will enjoy looking at.
Having been abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandparents in abject poverty, Vigil said he didn't want to come across as a bully when dealing with the homeless who'd taken up residence nearby.
His first visit to the transient community was to inform them he now owned the land and they had a week to leave, he said. Vigil wanted to show compassion and understanding — and give them ample time to find a new place to go.
He also wanted to let the vagrants know he was serious. "I used the line from the movie 'Tombstone' when I told them I'd be back in a week," Vigil said. "I said: 'Hell's coming with me' when I come back."
As promised, Vigil and a few homeowners returned to the wetlands seven days later. They did not call the police for assistance. The eight people who were camping there scattered when they heard the group coming, he said. The homeowners began tearing down the tents and clearing out the garbage left behind during the evacuation.
Despite the fervent efforts of the homeowners, the scars from the vagrant community's treatment of the area will take time to heal.
Syringes, pornographic magazines, soiled children's toys, broken tents, playing cards, lottery tickets, wine bottles and shoes were some of the items still strewn among the Cattails and charred trees in the wetlands earlier this week. Across the area wafts the pervasive stench of sewage and moldy, wet clothes discarded in the grass.
A community of vagrants have been camping on private property near the river and in the Caltrans right-of-way under the freeway for years. Since the wetlands were owned by a development company and not by local homeowners, residents couldn't file formal complaints with the Lodi Police Department when transients set up a tent city virtually in their backyard. The drifters congregated on the banks of the river and by the wetland's overflow area, burning campfires and using the habitat as a toilet. While the police would respond to calls about drugs and fires, residents could not stop the trespassing since it wasn't their property.
Even though a significant portion of the debris has been removed and locked gates have been installed near the wetlands, much cleanup remains. The collapsed tents, shopping carts and assorted litter is visible from the highway. Vigil estimates the cleanup will cost several thousand dollars. But he's hoping his neighbors will pitch in to help.
"I own the land, but we can all enjoy it," he said about his neighbors whose backyards face the wetlands. "(Neighbors) who help clean up the area can have a key and partake in enjoying it later."
Vigil envisions the area being a picnic and day area for the children and grandchildren of neighbors in the area, and clean habitat for the ducks, river otters and fish that call the wetlands home.
How did the area get this way?
Arnaiz Development Company, Inc. has owned the property since the 1990s, when it built the subdivision in which Vigil lives. While there have been vagrants periodically residing in the wetland area since the neighborhood was built, their numbers increased in recent years as the county's economy tumbled, said Russell Ray, chief financial officer for Arnaiz.
While residents could call the police to complain about drug use or illegal fires burning, they could not issue complaints for trespassing because they did not own the land, Ray said.
The police have limited resources and more important things to worry about, Vigil said.
"It's a private property matter," he said.
The Stockton-based company couldn't keep constant tabs on the day-to-day conditions of the property, so they decided to sell it to Vigil, said Ray.
"It didn't make sense for us to manage it from our Stockton office," he said. "It made great sense to sell it to him."
The company parted with the property for an undisclosed sum because it is a wetland area that cannot be developed, so it held little value for the company, said Ray.
Members of the community have known about the transient camp for years and have worked to clean it up as best as possible.
"It was a chronic problem; we'd clean up part of it, but then the trash would come back," said Kathy Grant, watershed education coordinator for the city's public works program. "The biggest problem is human waste."
Grant witnessed the mess firsthand on a regular basis during annual Coastal Cleanup days. The vagrants would use five-gallon plastic buckets lined with bags as makeshift toilets, she said. When the bags filled, they would be tied off and thrown in the bushes.
"They would eventually leak and be washed into the river," she said.
During September's Coastal Cleanup, Grant said she and three volunteers collected 2.5 tons of trash from the still-occupied camp. Police officers would clear the area of vagrants and escort volunteers during the Coastal Cleanups, Grant said.
Caltrans cleaned up some of the area under the highway three weeks ago and could consider to do more once the weather clears up, said Chantel Miller, public information officer for Caltrans. Besides using the help of California Highway Patrol officers and homeless advocates to vacate people from under the freeway, "No Trespassing" signs were put up.
The total cost of Caltrans' cleanup has not yet been evaluated, Miller said.
Even though much work remains for him and his neighbors, Vigil said he is pleased he can help rehabilitate the area he's lived in for more than 20 years.
"I believe in 'live and let live,' but we are all stewards of our environment."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.