As complaints about the homeless soar, Modesto has rolled out an effort to help them and get them off the streets.
The Homeless Engagement and Response Team — consisting of a police officer and a firefighter paramedic in a specially marked vehicle — started in July. Officials say the pilot program with officer Todd Musto and engineer Josh Hauselmann has been a success.
But there are challenges, such as not enough services for the homeless who do want help and how long it can take to receive services. It can be critical to provide services when a homeless person is ready to accept them. Delays can mean the person will have changed his mind and refuse help.
“If 10 people came to us and said, ‘I’m ready for shelter,’ we’d have a hard time finding a bed for all of them,” said Sgt. Mike Hammond, who oversees the Police Department’s Beat Health Unit, which includes HEART.
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Assistant Chief Rick Armendariz said officials from Modesto, Stanislaus County and other service providers have been meeting for about a month to address these issues.
And on Monday, city officials will learn about a proposal for a temporary low-barrier shelter, which unlike a traditional shelter, takes in couples and their pets, and a day center.
Musto and Hauselman said they are building relationships and trust with homeless people. It can take a lot of repeat contacts to do that and for someone to be ready to accept help. The two work four 10-hour days a week.
“There is no immediate fix, no quick fix,” Musto said. Hammond said Musto and Hauselmann did not receive special training for this assignment, but the two have nearly 40 years of public safety experience combined and have the demeanor, attitude and people skills for this work.
When asked what the public does not understand about homeless people, Musto said the answer is simple: They are people, each with their own stories and reasons for being homeless.
Musto and Hauselmann visited a small homeless camp near Tuolumne Boulevard, Highway 99 and the Tuolumne River on Thursday afternoon and checked in with the residents.
“I need an ID and a job,” a 23-year-old homeless man told The Bee. He declined to give his name and said he’s been homeless for about two years. He said his mother lives in the tent next to his. The man said he dropped out of school at 16 when he became a father and was a stay-at-home dad for a while.
The man said he supports this effort as long as he and other homeless people get help. Musto said this was his fourth visit with the man.
Musto and Hauselmann work closely with Stanislaus County’s Outreach and Engagement Center to get the homeless services, including driving them to the center and going out with center workers who do outreach with the homeless.
There also is an enforcement part to HEART. Musto typically arrests a few people a week, but said it’s usually because they have a felony warrant or are wanted on something involving violence.
He arrested a homeless man Thursday afternoon behind the Orangeburg Avenue Denny’s who had been smoking meth and had not been in contact with his parole officer. Musto gave the man his card and asked him to call once he’s out of custody.
“Our goal is not to arrest and cite them but to link them to services,” he said. He added HEART has connected about 15 to 20 homeless people with housing and many more to other services.
HEART also coordinates weekly cleanups of city parks and other public spaces. Some of the cleanups are of homeless camps. But the team posts 72-hour notices before a camp is cleared, and Musto and Haauselmann check in with the homeless multiple times before the cleanups.
“It’s not a surprise when we are doing a cleanup,” Musto said.
Reports of quality of life crimes — which mostly involve homeless people — have spiked in Modesto, from 1,696 in 2012 to 4,514 last year, according to the Police Department. These crimes include vagrancy, littering, being drunk in public, urinating or defecating in public, and camping in city parks.
Police Chief Galen Carroll has said these crimes increased after the state embarked on prison realignment in 2011, in which significant numbers of people were diverted from state prisons to county jails. He also pointed to other recent changes to state law that have reduced some drug and property crimes to misdemeanors and provide for the potential of earlier parole for many offenders.
No one has to tell the general manager of the Orangeburg Denny’s near Briggsmore and Highway 99 about the rise in these crimes. The manager, who wanted to be identified only by her first name, Betty, said she has worked at the restaurant for 35 years, and the homeless have been a problem for about the last eight.
Betty said the problems include homeless people shooting up drugs (including those who have overdosed in the bathroom), leaving their needles behind, leaving trash and shopping carts in the parking lot, ordering and eating a meal when they cannot pay, setting up camp behind the restaurant along the grass below the embankment, and starting two fires.
“The last four years have gotten really bad,” Betty said. There were 1,221 homeless people in Modesto in 2017, according to that year’s count. And these annual counts are not definitive and do not count all of the homeless. Betty said the homeless who hang out near Denny’s and other nearby businesses are from their late teens to early 40s and are addicts.
But she is not unsympathetic and understands many of us are vulnerable to becoming homeless. For instance, Betty said she provided turkey dinners on Christmas to the eight homeless people gathered behind the restaurant. She just wishes the homeless were cleaner, neater and had more self-respect.
Betty said she is cautiously optimistic HEART will make a difference. “I think it’s awesome,” she said, “if it’s going to be legit, and they come out and keep it under control, and maybe give (the homeless) some help.”
Modesto Fire Department Battalion Chief Darin Jesberg said the program is modeled on a similar one in Long Beach, though that one is staffed by firefighter paramedics. But other California police departments have their own versions of the program.
He said the one-year pilot program is evaluated every three months, and it’s been a success. “After the year is up,” he said, “we will look at funding sources to keep it going and possibly expand it.”
The City Council’s Safety and Communities Committee will get an update Monday and be asked to support a proposal for a temporary low-barrier shelter with 60 beds and a day center. The outreach and engagement center, which is in a modular office building, also would be moved to the site of the low-barrier shelter. The ultimate goal is to open a permanent access center that offers temporary housing and other services. The meeting is open to the public and starts at 5 p.m. in Room 2005 on the second floor of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.