"Some of these camps never will be clean," Chris Guptill said as he picked up big items — a piece of plastic safety fencing, a glass coffee pot — from a bank of Dry Creek in Modesto's Moose Park.
Not because of those kinds of things, which are obvious to the eye and relatively easy to haul off. It's the little stuff, such as alkaline batteries, plastic utensils, stolen credit cards and foam cups and food containers, that gets buried either intentionally or by nature and becomes part of the stratum, the volunteer said.
Or, as another volunteer, Mark Trice, said, it gets carried away in the creek and eventually ends up in the Tuolumne River.
Guptill, a Davis High School teacher, and Trice, owner of Trice Plumbing, were in the park Thursday morning with other volunteers and city and county workers. In just a few hours, they'd hauled an estimated four to five tons of refuse from homeless encampments. All that built up on the creek banks just since the last cleanups in October and November, he said.
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"And most of it probably in just the past month," Guptill added, saying a lot of homeless people have moved from a more visible area of the park along North Morton Boulevard to deeper into the wooded parts right along the creek.
When cleanup workers went into the park at about 7:30 Thursday morning, more than a dozen people were staying on the banks, a Modesto Police Department officer on scene estimated.
Among them was a woman who gave only her first name, Sherrie. She said she's been homeless almost a year, and in Modesto since May, when she came from Vegas and got "stuck" here. She's been in Moose Park about six months, she said, and she and others staying in the park were given a week's notice by police to vacate because the cleanup was coming.
Neighbors and park users got tired of seeing all the trash, Sherrie said, which she acknowledged is an "epidemic." But she and others she knows actually do carry out their trash to cans, she said.
Moved from Moose Park, Sherrie said, she'll find another campsite, most likely in a park. "I will keep camping, I will keep doing what I do," Sherrie said. Asked what she'd like to see the community do for the homeless, she said, "Open a tent city for us," in a park where no neighbors will be bothered."
She said she feels safe with her "street family" and would rather be in the parks than inside. "I've been out here almost a year now. I go inside, I feel claustrophobic, to the point where I need to be back outside. It's kind of weird like that, but I don't mind it."
Guptill, who started the cleanup effort called Operation 9-2-99, said he realizes that cleanup efforts by his group and the Dry Creek Trails Coalition are viewed by some people as anti-homeless. "That's not it at all," he said, saying the work combats only destructive, illegal behavior.
Many homeless are using parks in inappropriate ways they're not intended for, he said. Parkland is a public resource, and a lot of volunteers are working hard to keep them clean and protect them, to give people safe places to recreate.
"Recreation is the way to push back" against illegal park use, Guptill said, referring to getting Dry Creek nature trails populated by the general public and, for another example, reclaiming Beard Brook Park by creating a dog park.
While there is a shortage of shelter beds in the city for the homeless population, the teacher said, there are an abundance of services to help those who want to be helped. The bottom line when it comes to letting people stay in the parks, Guptill said, is "It's not sustainable, and sustainability should be everyone's goal."