Homeless camps raise concerns in rural regions

Issue Date: September 2, 2020
By Christine Souza
Farmers in Yuba and Sutter counties say they face serious challenges from homeless people trespassing and setting up encampents on farm properties, such as at this peach orchard near Marysville, where people are dismantling cars and dumping trash.
Photo/Christine Souza

Chronic problems with homelessness in California have spread to rural areas, with farmers —particularly in river areas close to cities—reporting more homeless and transient people trespassing or camping on farms.

During a meeting in Yuba City last week, farmers in Yuba and Sutter counties said they have been overrun by homeless encampments, which include torched cars, old RVs, discarded appliances, shopping carts, tires and other trash—and also bring crimes such as trespassing, vandalism, theft and arson.

"Every day, we wake up and wonder what we're going to see next," farmer Michele Smith-Barker of Marysville said, referring to the community of homeless people living along the riverbed near her farm. "Over a 10-day period, a peach-hauling truck was stolen, then it was somebody's quad and then a car was set on fire in the orchard. Most of these incidents involve personal property of farmers."

Smith-Barker, who patrols her farm property often, said many trespassers and campers "are dismantling stolen cars, cooking meth, stealing property and vandalizing area farms."

"Our frustration is these people have inundated our land, but I don't want to push them onto my neighbor-farmers, so we've got to solve it together," said Smith-Barker, who with the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau held the meeting of stakeholders to discuss health, safety and liability issues and possible solutions.

Farmers at the meeting raised concerns about the amount of time it takes to get a response from law enforcement agencies, stating that they've had to hire private security.

Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson said lack of response means his deputies are addressing more serious crimes, but said the department will make every attempt to respond. Anderson added he intends to better educate new officers about these issues.

Discussing approaches to removing people from private land, Yuba City attorney Michael Barrette said this depends on how long the trespassers or campers have been on the property. If someone has recently trespassed onto private property, he said, a farmer can contact law enforcement, and a citation will be issued so the person will leave the area.

Encampments that have been on the property for some time may require the landowner to start the legal process to have them removed, Barrette explained, warning there may be liabilities for landowners who use a "self-help" action, which legally refers to landowners who take action to remove tenants from the property. In addition, he said, courts are not processing eviction orders to remove homeless encampments during the pandemic due to government no-eviction protocols.

However, Sutter County District Attorney Amanda Hopper said her office will prosecute for criminal trespass, adding, "If you have personal property and someone has moved in there without your permission, that is a crime, period. If it comes to my office, we'll prosecute it."

Jeremy Strang, manager of code enforcement for the Yuba County Community Development and Services Agency, said, "We are going to address (encampments) one by one. We're going to start systematic abatements," adding, "We're going to help you whatever we can; we have a little bit of funding, but not much."

Yuba County farm manager James Camblin, who grows walnuts, almonds and prunes, said the farm has experienced "ongoing thefts of equipment, vehicles and our employees' vehicles. They cannot leave their lunches out without them being stolen."

He said homeless people steal stakes used in young walnut orchards to build homeless-encampment structures, "which they put 'No Trespassing' or 'Keep Out' signs on, which I find ironic." He added that stolen cars are brought into the area, dismantled and burned on a regular basis.

Addressing the issue, farmers said, is costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup and private security costs, plus time that could be spent on farming.

Reclamation District 784 General Manager Patrick Meagher said the district's problems began 10 years ago with a metal theft that caused $100,000 worth of damage to a pump station. The district at the time used concrete blocks to keep trespassers out and now, with homeless people camping nearby, he has placed more concrete blocks along the levee to prevent vehicles from damaging the levee.

"We spend, on average, $60,000 a year between placement of blocks and hauling trash," he said.

During the meeting, it was pointed out that government regulations require that before homeless people can be removed from an encampment, there must be a place for them to go. Yuba City farmer Jeff Stephens, who founded SAYLOVE, a grassroots organization to beautify the area, said, "We need our board of supervisors to come up with a place to put the homeless, because once we have a place for them to go, they can move on."

Johnny Burke, executive director of the nonprofit Sutter Yuba Homeless Consortium, said, "Both counties are aggressively pursuing trying to set up housing options for people, either camping, housing or emergency shelters. There are many balls in the air; I expect to see a major change in the homeless in both counties within a year."

Potential solutions discussed at the meeting included government grant funding offered through the CalRecycle Farm and Ranch Solid Waste Cleanup and Abatement program, which can be awarded to local governments and resource conservation districts to clean solid or hazardous waste issues on farms or ranches where illegal dumping has occurred.

California Farm Bureau Federation policy advocate Taylor Roschen said she would like to see the program modified to also allow private landholders to apply directly for the funds.

Regarding legislative solutions, Roschen said, "When policies are crafted in the context of just urban aesthetic and lifestyles, they don't translate well to rural settings. We need to find a way to help people in our rural communities deal with this issue, which requires a different set of tools than urban homelessness does."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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