Crew members from the California Department of Transportation spent Thursday morning removing tents, clothing, bicycles, human waste and hypodermic needles from the top of an embankment along southbound Highway 99.
The area, which extends between the Victor Road and Lodi Avenue overpasses along the southbound lanes of Highway 99, has long been a place of refuge for many homeless individuals and families.
But the narrow stretch of land is State of California property, and on Thursday, officials with Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol removed anyone and anything on the land.
“Caltrans is empathetic to these folks,” agency spokesman Skip Allum said. “However, often times they live in places that are unsafe. They’re often too close too a high-speed freeway, or they have fires going that can cause damage to the bridges or overpasses.”
Allum did not know exactly how many homeless individuals were camped out along the freeway, but said CHP officers handed 20 eviction notices to encampments between Victor Road and Lodi Avenue on Monday.
He said Caltrans has performed about 20 clearings along the freeway between Turner Road and Kettleman Lane in the past two years, and last year, the state spent $14 million to clean up encampments.
“This takes up our crews’ time that could be spent in other areas,” Allum said. “When we do these cleanups, it takes away from tree trimmings, vegetation control to prevent wildfires, graffiti abatement and repairing potholes.”
The encampments along Highway 99 were located directly behind several industrial area businesses, including Kustom Kurves Collision Repair Center. Owner Luis Vargas said several of the homeless who have taken up residence behind the shop walk through his parking lot on a daily basis.
He said while they have not been a major problem, the homeless have made his customers, as well as his neighbors’ customers uncomfortable.
“I’m glad (Caltrans) is cleaning it up,” Vargas said. “It builds up along the building back there. They’re not going to walk through my lot anymore, not going to take my water, not going to take my power.”
Some of the homeless have asked to use water hoses and air hoses. Some have also cut holes in his rear fence to gain access to the power panels in order to charge phones and electronic devices, he said.
While he was glad the camps were being cleaned, Vargas said it was only a temporary fix.
“At the end of the day, where are they going to go? Unfortunately, they’re going to go downtown, they’re going to go the parks and the alleys,” he said. “Eventually they’ll end up coming back here.”
Linda Backman, an employee at PR’s Autohaus of Lodi located at Pine Street and Houston Lane, echoed Vargas’ sentiments that the cleanup would not be a long-term solution.
She said staff has found pounds of human waste along the side of the building, as well as rat-infested garbage on the property, which is typically gated and closed in the evenings,
The shop’s security cameras have even captured a homeless woman stealing a running car from the lot, she said.
“I feel sorry for the people who have to come out here and clean all that up,” Backman said. “They don’t get paid enough to do that. Unfortunately, (the homeless who camp there) won’t be held accountable, and they’ll be back before you know it.”
Downtown Lodi business owner Leah Snelter came to the cleanup site to try to find homeless men who might be able to make use of a rehabilitation center at Lifeline Church, located at 500 Park St., that has recently opened.
Unfortunately, all of those who called the encampment home had left the neighborhood early Thursday morning.
Snelter, who owns The Fashionable You Boutique on School Street, said she also wanted to see firsthand what the cleanup entailed and who was being removed from the area.
“People just assume all the homeless out here are addicts, and that simply isn’t true,” she said. “Maybe some of them are, but a lot of them have severe mental health issues. A lot of people don’t realize there are kids out here, too. Nobody ever thinks about that. We need to find a permanent solution, and (cleaning up) isn’t the answer.”
Allum acknowledged that many who were cleared from the camp Thursday morning would most likely return by the end of the day. He added that crews would probably be returning to the area in the future.
“Homelessness is a humanitarian issue throughout the country, not just in California he said. “But 20 percent of the nation’s homeless live here in California. And it’s going to take collaboration between our agency, other state agencies and elected officials to address this issue.”