Merced's homeless committee, which has been meeting since January to answer a series of questions about the homeless problem in Merced, voted Wednesday night on the final recommendations it will hand over to the City Council on the issue.
While the committee's majority recommended, in a second vote, that a homeless camp should be set up, among other things, a sizable minority voted against the idea and wrote a minority report, which recommends that the city should enforce its no camping ordinance and house homeless people in the shelters available to them.
The six meetings have been characterized by passionate and lively debate and ultimately division over how to solve the city's homeless problem.
"This is town hall democracy," said Mike Conway, the city's spokesman and secretary to the committee. "Everyone got their say and it was a lively and passionate series of meetings," he said.
Former city councilman and committee chairman Jim Sanders was in the minority that didn't support a campground. While he is in support of helping the homeless, he simply doesn't "like the idea of people living in camps." He said if there is ample room in the shelters in Merced, as has been noted at the meetings, and there is a no camping ordinance, the city should work to fill those shelters not create a campground.
While Sanders' opinion was not in the majority, even among some of the supporters of campgrounds, the committee's affirmative recommendation was a hollow victory.
"We haven't accomplished much of anything," said Renee Davenport, a committee member and homeless advocate. "Our hands were tied."
The council's questions were so narrow it left the committee with few options, she said. "The questions were set up for us to fail," she said.
The first draft of the committee's report to the City Council included the answers to most of the questions the committee was charged with answering.
Is a campground warranted? Yes.
What kind of funds should be used to pay for a campground? The committee voted that any such matters should be taken up in future planning.
Should the campground be temporary or permanent? Yes.
How long would people be camping there? The majority voted that stays should be temporary depending upon each individual case.
What kinds of facilities would be at the campground and would they be ADA accessible? The majority voted that the site should have restrooms, fresh water, garbage service, laundry and showers, among other things.
What location criteria should be used to assure access to services and avoidance of neighborhood conflict? The majority voted the site should be within walking distance of services, shopping and transportation, and in an area that would create the minimum of neighborhood conflict. It also voted that any site should accommodate sex offenders.
One of the committee's final motions was that the council should have a 10-year homeless plan written to garner federal funding for any homeless project and give the city a plan to solve the problem.
A survey seeking public aid for any potential campground was sent out to the public in the course of the committee's deliberations. The results were as varied as the views on the committee, from support of homeless camps to total opposition to the idea.
While the committee has one final meeting at 6 p.m. March 29, it's only meant for the committee to make minor changes to the draft report as it has already been written. The final report will go to the council April 5.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.