They are often the most voiceless people in the community.
Living under a bridge, inside tents or at public parks, they spend a large chunk of the day worrying about when they might be kicked out of a campsite or forced to move.
The city’s homeless population is often overlooked, but activists say you can’t begin to solve the problem of homelessness without first giving them a voice.
“Nobody ever asked or cared to ask the homeless people what they need,” said Renee Davenport, a community activist for the homeless.
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Davenport, along with a UC Merced professor, several university students and community supporters, did just that on Saturday by surveying about 30 homeless people at three Merced sites.
The response? The vast majority of homeless people voiced support for a campground facility in Merced where they could find running water, showers, toilets and a garbage bin.
“They really want a place where they won’t feel afraid,” Davenport said. “If we can get a camp in place until people are housed, at least they would be in a secure environment and they could clean up, and it would reduce litter.”
The seven-question survey asked people candid questions about how long they’ve been homeless, how they feel about the current shelter on D Street and what other services they would need. Most people surveyed said they appreciated the D Street shelter, but felt it didn’t serve their needs because of requirements including an early curfew. Some voiced support for mental illness programs, while others said they just wanted a place to take a shower and cook a meal.
One of the people surveyed was a 57-year-old homeless Merced man who declined to provide his name. He calls himself “The Rev.” He’s said he’s been homeless for five years after losing everything in a divorce.
“I think they need to open up a new daytime facility – a place where people can come to take a shower, grab a bite to eat,” he said. “Saying no to camping is not a solution. It just makes people want to sleep in bushes to hide from cops. To me, they’re taking a stringent course that has no compassion.”
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said he supports a day center for the homeless population, but not an outdoor encampment because of the city’s no-camping laws. He said the city could add a few garbage bins to “strategic” parts of town to give the homeless community a place to dispose of trash.
Because the homeless population does not pay water, sewer or garbage fees, the city would have to absorb the costs of the garbage bin, but Thurston said it would make financial sense.
“Look at what we spend on it anyway,” Thurston said. “Two or three dumpsters are not going to break the bank. It’s better than asking volunteers to clean up trash later.”
Thurston said he believes the solution to the homeless problem is economic growth.
“Getting a job means everything,” he said. “I’m waiting for someone to identify what we can do to get people back into the workforce.”
Getting back to work is a priority for 19-year-old Will Glisan. He said he became homeless after his mother died and his father kicked him out.
Glisan is trying to secure a job in the landscaping field. But without an address or phone number, that can prove to be a challenge. Glisan said he sleeps on the grass with a dog bed as a pillow, but recently was told to leave by a police officer after he wanted to play horseshoes at the park.
Glisan said a day center would help by providing a safe place for him and his belongings.
“It’s a safe place for us to be without people calling the cops or our stuff getting stolen,” Glisan said.
John Carlisle, a community activist for the homeless, said those he surveyed expect the campground to have some rules and would agree to follow them.
“They indicated a general willingness to go along with rules in that area,” Carlisle said. “Most of them expected there would be some sort of policing of the encampment. One of the things they’re looking for is a place (where) they’re able to sleep safely.”
Robin DeLugan, a professor of anthropology at UC Merced, said the people she spoke to said they needed help finding resources to get back on track.
“Some of the things people told me showed me that people might need help navigating our government systems,” DeLugan said. “It’s not just a safe place to live, but people also want that chance to grow and learn. They’re people with their own dreams, aspirations and concerns.”
Davenport said the group will tally the results of the homeless survey and present them at a future City Council meeting.