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In early March, William Payne’s long legs peeped out of his small light blue and green tent that he had erected in Downtown Stockton, alongside dozens of other encampments. 

Laying stretched out next to him, taking up the majority of the tent space was his gray and white 4-year-old pit bull dog, Princess. 

By late March, Payne had been forced to vacate his tent site because of the city’s encampment cleanup efforts and found shelter on the side of a closed-off highway. 

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Despite the city having homeless shelters that offer beds, Payne, 56, said he doesn’t want to live at one that doesn’t allow him to keep his beloved Princess. 

“She’s family; we’ve been through some trials and tribulations together, so I can’t give her up,” Payne said.  

At this location, Payne had enough space for a couch where Princess slept and room for him to sleep in his tent alone, but once again, in April city officials told Payne he had to abandon the location. 

Once again, Payne packed up his belongings with Princess by his side and moved alongside a street near St. Mary’s Dining Room.  

However, this time, his tent didn’t even resemble a tent in the slightest way. Instead, it appeared to be a multitude of tarps clenching the pegs of an old, disassembled tent with no roof to block the heavy rainfall that month.  

Payne is only one out of the 893 unsheltered people living in the streets of Stockton, a city that has been grappling with a growing homeless crisis, according to the 2022 Point-in-Time Count. 

The biennial count is an attempt to track the number of unsheltered and sheltered homeless people in the county, which later determines how much each county will receive in state and federal funding to address the situation.  

A city official said that, on March 19, the city had done an encampment cleanup because of excessive trash accumulating, which prompted environmental and health concerns, as well as the large number of people occupying the area and vandalism, such as people cutting through fencing. The official said people in the area were aware that a cleanup was going to happen and information about outreach services was provided prior to people moving.   

Princess, William Payne’s dog, gives him a kiss before he heads out in Stockton on May 11. “She is very protective of me. She freaks out when I’m gone for too long,” Payne said. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

Since Payne has become used to the repeated moving cycle after migrating 10 times, he has now developed his own system to move his belongings.  

“I’ll go get a cart — I will have somebody help me — or a stroller,” Payne said. “I try to keep my stuff minimal; I used to be a hoarder because I can’t move it all.” 

His most consistent item he ensures to bring in every move is his big American flag that he typically hangs on a nearby fence as a sign for anyone trying to locate him. 

Each morning Payne wakes up, sometimes in freezing cold weather or, at times, scorching hot temperatures above 100 degrees, and walks about five minutes to St. Mary’s Dining Room, where he receives breakfast, lunch and dinner for free daily.  

The City of Stockton issued a notice to vacate the illegal campsite near I-5 in Stockton on April 7. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

The dining hall also allows unsheltered people to receive mail, shower, do laundry and a change of clothes, according to Payne.  

While on his way to receive his favorite meal served at the dining hall — oatmeal — he recounted how his unsheltered journey started.  

“I became homeless after serving time in prison [Chino State Prison] for domestic violence,” Payne said. “I’m from Coachella Valley, but my parole landed me here.”  

He said his life prior to prison was complicated, but he never had faced homelessness.  

As part of his “hustle,” William Payne takes soda cans to a recycling unit near his tent in Stockton on May 11. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

“It’s like being in a third world country in your own country,” Payne said about getting transported to Stockton. “It’s nothing I’d ever seen before.”

Point-in-Time data shows that, in 2017, the county had 1,552 unsheltered people, and in 2019, the number rose to 2,629.  

Aside from having to constantly scout out his next encampment location, Payne also deals with medical problems. 

He said he battles anxiety, PTSD and schizophrenia. 

William Payne holds about $5 in cash, the money he made from recycling soda cans in Stockton on May 11. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

During the day, he hops on a borrowed bike from his tent neighbors and goes to the recycling center to turn in all the cans he collected, and at night, he digs in dumpsters to find valuables to resell.  

Although his earning aren’t high, he takes his cash and buys weed.  

According to Payne, the cannabis allows him to control his anxiety and is used for medical purposes.  

Life on the streets of Stockton is not an easy journey, but as long as Payne has his companion Princess with him, water and a large tent, he said he is content.  

“It offers me independence; I am not strapped down to the city,” Payne said.  

Victoria Franco is a reporter based in Stockton covering San Joaquin County for Bay City News Foundation and its nonprofit news site Local News Matters. She is a Report for America corps member.