Officials in Modesto have cleared a series of makeshift homes that were discovered deep inside caves along the Tuolumne River. The dwellings were located 20 feet below street level and were equipped with furnishings and home decor. Officials say they also removed drugs, guns, and thousands of pounds of debris.
Authorities said the caves were at risk of flooding or collapse, and dismantling them was a matter of public safety. Those who lived there were notified of the cleanup beforehand and connected with homeless services.
A similar shantytown has been discovered in Riverbank, another city in Stanislaus County. The caves there were cleaned up last fall, but the makeshift dwellings have returned.
“First off, it's pollution. It's a danger to themselves or others if that river happens to rise rapidly," Riverbank Mayor Richard O'Brien told CBS News. But “they have the right to live on public property, according to the courts,” he added. “The Supreme Court is going to take that, so we'll see there.”
O’Brien was referring to Grants Pass v. Johnson, which is being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. The case will challenge the opinion — established in Martin v. City of Boise — that individuals have the right to sleep on public property if shelter is not available. The Court’s ruling could have a major impact on local governments and their ability to regulate where people can sleep.