Homeless, with Merced church's help, tidying camp

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 21, 2013 

JOSHUA EMERSON SMITH/jsminth@mercedsunstar.com An unidentified homeless man works at the 16th Street homeless camp in Merced Friday (1-18-13) to clean up the site where he sleeps using bags donated by Merced First Assembly of God. Members of the congregation pass out food and blankets behind him.

JOSHUA EMERSON SMITH

Residents of the homeless camp at 16th Street and North Highway 59 recently launched a cleanup of their site after members of a local church stepped up to assist the effort.

"These people out here on Bear Creek are willing to clean up," said Dina Ruiz, member of Merced First Assembly of God. "They just need something to throw all this garbage in."

About a week ago, members of the congregation went to distribute garbage bags and other supplies after word got out the camp was looking for help with its refuse problem.

On Friday, church members -- who regularly focus outreach on McNamara Park -- went back to the 16th Street camp to bring food and blankets.

Large piles of trash bags had accumulated, and the camp looked noticeably tidier than a few weeks ago, church members said.

Camp resident Alfredo Garcia, 50, stuffed trash into black plastic bags as church members talked with others.

Having their assistance "helps a lot," he said. "If we don't clean it up, the (city) is going to run everybody out."

Congregation members have pledged to come back in two weeks to haul away the trash.

"They have been cleaning up so we're going to wait until the first Saturday of February," said church member Lucy Rubalcava. "We need to give them enough time to pile up that trash. That way, when we go we can just take one big load to the dump."

The 16th Street homeless camp is one of several locations in Merced where the homeless have sought protection from the elements.

City officials have called the camps illegal, but homeless advocates continue to defend their existence.

"Where are they going to go if they've lost their job, lost their home, lost their vehicles?" Ruiz said. "It could be you. It could be me. It could be anybody. We might be out there with them."

Formerly homeless, Ron Ross, 29, stopped by to help with the cleanup.

He said he recently has been able to share a two-bedroom apartment with four other people to get out of the cold. However, he said, work is hard to come by.

"It's real difficult if you're trying to do it by yourself," he said. "In this world, it takes more than one person to live, especially because if you do get jobs, they're part-time jobs with low hours and low wages."

About 1-in-5 county residents live below the poverty line and are in danger of becoming homeless, according to Merced County's 2012 Homeless Count and Survey. Last year, the survey estimated the county had more than 500 homeless.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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