Apr. 14—The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the California Department of Transportation from maintaining its properties along major highways and intestates, but a year later, the agency is ramping up its efforts to deter the homeless from making embankments, overpasses and bridges their residences.
"Early on when the pandemic hit and everything was shut down, we were directed to continue with essential functions," Caltrans District 10 director Dennis Agar said. "Litter and encampments at the time weren't considered essential. However, a couple months later we found out that it did get exacerbated, and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) was able to provide guidelines about how we could deal with encampments and litter as well."
Agar spoke to the Lodi City Council during a Tuesday morning shirtsleeve session, in which his agency updated city officials on its homeless policies and practices.
"We did get back on to it a few months later," he said. "We are trying to do our best to keep up with the litter and the encampments within our right of way."
Warren Alford, District 10's chief of public and legislative affairs, said prior to the pandemic, crews would simply clean homeless encampments off properties located along Interstate 5 and Highways 99 and 12.
However, those displaced by the cleanups would either return a short time later, or relocate to another state property.
In some cases, the homeless would relocate to a city property, increasing a burden on local jurisdictions that did not have low-barrier shelters, he said.
"We determined that approach wasn't sustainable, and it doesn't help end homelessness," Alford said. "So we're really looking for more of an integrated and sustained approach. So even after COVID-19 restrictions are removed, we're looking for a new way of operating."
One new way of operating, he said, is to send Caltrans landscaping crews out to various properties along Highways 99 and 12 to consider removing shade-providing vegetation and install no-climb fencing to keep the homeless out.
The agency is currently undertaking a project along Highway 99 in which crews will lay pavement up to the undersides of bridges and overpasses to make any sheltered and enclosed areas inaccessible.
Alford highlighted several encampments underneath the bridge at Highway 99 and the Mokelumne River, where both Caltrans and the city have received a multitude of complaints from residents.
"We were able to create an exclusion underneath the bridge with some wrought iron fencing, and now we're doing regular litter pickup," he said. "And the individuals at this location, it's a level 3 (priority) for us right now, so we're not displacing them. But we're working with them to try to help manage the litter and debris and impact on the encampment. Our social services folks are going out there with us on a weekly basis to engage those individuals. Hopefully we can get them to eventually move into a better location."
A level 3 priority involves Caltrans officials monitoring and mitigating cleanup efforts. Sites are typically designated level 3 when there is no imminent threat to the state's infrastructure, Caltrans said.
A level 1 would be a critical priority, and the agency's director would call for removal of an encampment when a bridge or overpass is in danger of failing due to the presence of the homeless, Caltrans said.
Alford said just because the Mokelumne site is a level 3 priority, it doesn't mean the agency isn't doing anything to remove homeless individuals.
When removing encampments, Alford said the agency makes every effort to connect individuals with services and shelter.
There are currently 611 open customer service requests to clean up encampments throughout District 10. Of those, 371 are encampment cleanups, and 240 are litter abatement cases.
Crews spend two days a month picking up litter from highway medians, shoulders and landscaped areas, and over the last year, they have collected more than 300 cubic yards of debris. That's equal to more than 30 dump truck loads of trash, Caltrans said.
In 2019, Caltrans spent some $100 million on abatement efforts in District 10, and in 2020, that increased to $120 million.
Mayor Alan Nakanishi asked staff if the Lodi Improvement Committee could implement an Adopt-A-Highway effort to assist Caltrans with litter abatement.
"Adopt-A-Highway would be under the Mokelumne Bridge," he said. "You can have volunteers go and clean it up. What I see is we're going to have more complaints, and it will be hard for Caltrans to be there all the time. That idea is a good idea, and people are willing to volunteer for these things."
To submit a customer service request for litter abatement or to clean up an encampment, visit csr.dot.ca.gov/index.php/Msrsubmit.
"I know you guys have properties up and down state, and this is a high priority issue here in Lodi," councilman Mikey Hothi said. "The Mokelumne River and Highway 99 location is probably the location we get the most emails about. I just want to make sure we as the council, and the city are being attentive."