La Loma neighborhood residents John and Margaret Kalal have worked for months with other neighbors and in recent weeks with parks officials to reclaim Moose and Kewin parks from the homeless.
The Kalals say some of the homeless use drugs and alcohol, litter, vandalize park property, relieve themselves outdoors and sleep in the parks overnight, making the grounds not fit or safe for families. And while progress has been made, the Kalals say more work is needed.
That’s why they will be at Wednesday night’s Modesto City Council meeting. John Kalal will ask officials to continue working with residents. He said the homeless have every right to be in a city park – his issue is with those who engage in illegal conduct, such as using drugs or camping overnight.
“As a public citizen, we want to use the park without being threatened, walk through human feces or feel that we cannot have our children there,” he said. “The bottom line is it is not suitable for normal people to use the park.”
City officials say they are seeing more homeless people throughout Modesto and hearing more complaints from residents about the homeless in city parks. The homeless are living in many parks. For instance, last week, more than two dozen campsites were set up at Beard Brook Park. Downtown merchants also are complaining about aggressive panhandlers and vagrants.
I’m getting complaints on a daily basis about vagrancy in the parks, using drugs, having sex, trash and litter, vandalism. It’s citywide.
Police Chief Galen Carroll
“I’m getting complaints on a daily basis about vagrancy in the parks,” police Chief Galen Carroll said, “using drugs, having sex, trash and litter, vandalism. It’s citywide.”
But some of the homeless say they grew up in Modesto and consider it their home, even though they say they are not made to feel welcome. They say the city and the public often blame all of the homeless for the problems created by a handful.
“They just want us to go away,” said Brenda Hughey, 50, last week at the makeshift campsite in Moose Park where she had lived for about three months with her boyfriend, Mark O’Neill, 63, and their pit bull-boxer mix, Karma. “This is my hometown. This is where I’m from.”
There was no sign of them or their campsite Tuesday morning after a police officer gave them a notice last week saying they had 48 hours to leave because they were camping illegally.
City Manager Jim Holgersson said Modesto has limited resources to deal with problems created by the homeless. He said the city will turn up the pressure to get the homeless to leave a park when residents start complaining. For instance, the city recently removed the picnic tables from Kewin at the request of the Kalals and other La Loma residents.
But that typically means the homeless move on to another city park.
The city hopes long-term solutions are developed through Stanislaus County’s Focus on Prevention effort dealing with homelessness, Holgersson said. As part of that effort, the county is holding an Oct. 1 summit.
But he said the city is developing more tools. For instance, officials are working on ordinances that regulate the feeding of the homeless in parks and restrict where people can panhandle.
City officials say while church groups and other good Samaritans who feed the homeless in parks are well-intentioned, their efforts can cause problems, such as litter. Officials say these parks can become magnets for the homeless and create more problems.
1,408 Number of homeless people an annual tally conducted in January found in Stanislaus County
Assistant City Attorney Jose Sanchez said Modesto is not looking to ban public feedings. He said the city cannot ban panhandling because the First Amendment protects it as free speech. But he said the city can impose restrictions, such as prohibiting panhandling near ATMs.
He said the ordinances are expected to come before the City Council in three to four months. He said the process to create them will include meetings in which the public can participate.
While city officials say they are seeing more homeless people, it is a difficult population to count. An annual tally conducted by agencies that serve the homeless found 1,408 of them in Stanislaus County in January, including 983 in Modesto.
Previous annual counts in the past decade have turned up 1,156 to 1,800 homeless people in the county. These one-day counts provide a snapshot and cannot capture all of the homeless, such as those sleeping on a friend’s couch or in someone’s backyard or garage.
There is speculation but no definitive answers on why there are more homeless. Some of it centers on the efforts of volunteers to remove trash and overgrown brush from the Tuolumne River. Some say this has caused the homeless living along the river to relocate to city parks, where they are more visible. But Chris Guptill, who leads the cleanups, said he has not noticed large numbers of the homeless leaving the river.
It also can be a challenge to help the chronically homeless. As a group, these homeless people can have high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health problems.
The impact of vagrancy was easy to spot when the Kalals and fellow La Loma neighborhood resident Colin Fitzgearl visited Kewin and Moose parks last week.
Put the homeless to work, cleaning parks and alleys for a voucher that can be used for a hotel room or to buy food or toiletries.
Brenda Hughey, homeless Modesto resident
The Kewin bathroom had been closed because of vandalism to the building, but the area reeked because people had relieved themselves along the building’s back wall. Paper napkins had been tossed on the ground after people had used them to wipe themselves.
Even locking the bathroom has not stopped the vandalism. City park workers discovered Tuesday morning that someone had broken into the men’s bathroom and smashed the urinal.
John Kalal said when he picks up trash in the parks and along Dry Creek, he finds used hypodermic needles, knives, discarded clothing and blankets, paper plates, plastic cups, and wrappers for fast food and junk food.
Hughey and O’Neill said last week that they keep their campsite clean. They said they have been living in Modesto parks for about three years, except for several months last year when they had jobs renovating a home and living in its garage.
Hughey said she became homeless after her husband died and she could not make ends meet. O’Neill said a drug conviction for growing marijuana in 2012 led to his downfall. He said he was growing medical marijuana.
They said they don’t want to stay in a shelter because shelters separate the men and the women and don’t allow pets. Hughey said her family is in no position to help her, and O’Neill said he doesn’t want to ask his adult daughters for help.
They said they get by on money from recycling (a good day can bring in $30) and the $196 they each receive monthly in food stamps. Both said what they want are jobs. The city should “put the homeless to work,” Hughey said, “cleaning parks and alleys for a voucher that can be used for a hotel room or to buy food or toiletries.”
The council will meet at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316