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Hidden homeless caves dug into Tuolumne River bank in Modesto: "A safety hazard for them and the community"

Here's a look at homeless-constructed caves found along Tuloumne River
Here's a look at homeless-constructed caves found along Tuloumne River 02:52

MODESTO — Hidden homeless caves tucked along the Tuolumne River were cleared out by volunteer groups and the Modesto Police Department over the weekend.

Volunteers from Operation 9-2-99 and the Tuolumne River Trust partnered with the Modesto Police Department to clear out 7,600 pounds of trash. They also had two truckloads and a trailer of garbage that were removed from the area. 

The caves were located across the street from Crater Avenue, about 20 feet below street level, accessible via makeshift stairs built into the hillside.

Update: Hidden homeless caves blocked by barricades along the Tuolumne River in Modesto

"These are basically stairs they made to get down to the dwelling," said Tracy Rojas, who lives near the cave camps. 

Rojas took CBS13 on the treacherous walk to see the craters near the home she has lived in for nearly 30 years on Crater Avenue. 

"If one of these were to collapse, it would be devastating," she said. "This whole thing would come down and go into the water." 

One of the caves that Rojas took CBS13 into used to be fully furnished with what she said was bedding, belongings, food, things on a makeshift mantel, drugs and weapons.

One of the caves encountered by volunteers. Blanca Estephany Ruiz/Tuolumne River Trust

"We had a hard time figuring out how they got so much stuff down in there, considering how hard it was to get it up the hill and out," said Chris Guptill, coordinator for Operation 9-2-99.

Guptill was one of the volunteers who was hauling out everything that was in the caves. He said they found eight caves in total, but this wasn't the group's first time down there. 

"We really don't have a known solution on how to deal with it," said Guptill. 

In November 2022, CBS13 took a tour of the cleared-out caves in Stanislaus County in the same location. They were nowhere near as elaborate as they are now. 

"You can see the hooks on the wall where they had bottles and stuff hanging down," Rojas said. "I think there needs to be more emphasis on the homeless. They are at the point where you can see they are desperate." 

CBS13 asked Modesto police and the city what was being done to prevent people from coming back to the cave camp. A spokesperson said they will continue to monitor the area and connect homeless residents to services. 

Police worked with members of its HEART Team, park rangers, CHAT and abatement personnel to notify the people staying in the caves and homeless camps about the upcoming cleanup operation before they cleared everything out. They also gave them services to assist them during the transition. 

"It's already been proven that people will dig these out, so I don't think filling them in with any material would work," said Guptill.

On Wednesday, CBS13 was back out along the riverbank as crews put out makeshift fencing and caution tape around the area. 

Erosion, rising waters washing the belongings into the river and contamination are all concerns. 

"It's a hazard for not only the people who are living in there but the people who are walking up there," said Rojas. 

The caves may be cleared for now, but the neighborhood near the river is feeling no real sense of peace in this problem. 

"It's a safety hazard for them and the community," Rojas told CBS13. 

The area is city property. Guptill said that when flooding happens, it spills onto the other side of the river, not the side where the caves are located. 

"This particular area has been plagued by vagrancy and illegal camps, which have raised concerns due to the fact that these camps were actually dug into the riverbanks," Modesto police said in a statement. 

Rojas said park rangers have talked about adding cameras into the area and posting signage to make it an official park so they can have more enforcement in the area. 

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