March 31, 2008

To help homeless, Turlock to start program that works in Modesto

Since 2006, homelessness has been the most divisive issue in Turlock. Shouting matches, rivalries, college studies, promises, protests and numerous delays have come to define the issue.

TURLOCK -- Slight of frame, George looks healthy except for his mouth.

It shows decades of homelessness: most of his teeth missing, lips floppy over barren gums, a few craggy teeth -- black-pocked spires faded from white to yellow.

George, 44, was born in Lodi. He started using meth at age 13 and spent most of his life running the streets of Modesto. Police have a picture of him strung-out, in handcuffs, sitting against a dirty wall, long hair in his face, smiling a wild-mouthed smile.

"That was me," George said. "It's not any more. Charles Manson is right there," he pointed at the picture, "not me."

George is sober, happy and healthy thanks to a Modesto police initiative that works with homeless alcoholics, addicts and the mentally ill instead of against them. That program, the Habitual Transient Offender program, is coming to Turlock. It's the city's first proactive plan in two years.

Since 2006, homelessness has been the most divisive issue in Turlock. Shouting matches, rivalries, college studies, promises, protests and numerous delays have come to define the issue.

The City Council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday with the homeless and other groups to discuss short- and long-term goals to fix the problem.

In searching for good ideas, Turlock needed only to look north at Modesto, which quietly has put in the buildings, programs and personnel to handle the most visible social ill in the United States. It's a system that's producing results such as George.

Glenn Hutsell is the president of the Stanislaus Housing and Support Services Collaborative, which writes the county's continuing-care plan -- which is necessary to secure homeless- related federal and state funding. Last year, the group brought in more than $2 million.

"For Modesto, I really think it's having the resources -- the Gospel Mission, a second (Salvation Army) shelter, the Respite Center. There's a range of tools available," Hutsell said. "Turlock is a smaller town, everything is more visible, and there are really no services. They're in the middle of asking what a city should be doing, what a city shouldn't be doing. In Modesto, the city was instrumental in getting everything started."

In the beginning ...

Before retail-laden McHenry Avenue and Vintage Faire Mall on Sisk Road, Yosemite Boulevard was Modesto's main commercial thoroughfare. As more people flooded the city, the older section fell into disrepair. Many businesses moved to McHenry, and later the area around the mall.

Yosemite Boulevard today acts as the dividing line between two areas: the low-income airport neighborhood and upper-middle class La Loma, with a handful of parks and riverfront acreage.

With the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite, many homeless filtered from the mission through La Loma in the morning and stopped in parks and along the river. Nonhomeless sorts with dubious free-time activities seemed to show up, too.

The Gospel Mission and La Loma Neighborhood Association were not on good terms, until differences of opinion were put aside. Association President Michael Moradian toured the mission and asked it to partner with his group in keeping his neighborhood safe.

The neighborhood group now works closely with the mission and the Police Department and has hired a private security patrol to hold people caught doing something illegal until police can arrive. Moradian has contacted school officials and business owners, asking them to get involved. The association sends fliers and e-mails to residents and businesses, informing them of events and security issues and encouraging participation.

"We've found out it's not always so much the homeless," Moradian said. "I watch a lot of these (troublemakers) leave at night and they filter into apartments across Scenic Drive."

One city, two shelters

When the need for homeless shelter beds outpaced the mission's 300-plus space, the issue rose to the level of the Modesto City Council.

"When the homeless issue came up on my radar, I wasn't coming at it from a political standpoint, but a human standpoint, a practical standpoint," Councilwoman Janice Keating said.

Shelters help police do their job, she said. A homeless meth addict, looking for copper to steal or a car to break into, probably isn't spending the night in a shelter -- he's on the prowl. So police don't have to ask, "Why are you on the street?" They can ask, "Why aren't you at the shelter?"

Keating approached The Salvation Army in 2002 with the idea of opening a cold-weather emergency shelter and with $70,000 in federal money. A 25,000-square-foot building was built inside a donated 100,000-square-foot warehouse at D and Ninth streets. The Salvation Army donated bunk beds, the Modesto Fire Department donated mattresses and Jack Frost Ice donated semi trucks for moving everything in.

"Why did we not get political flak? We kept the process moving so quickly," Keating said. "We were set on moving people in on the first of the year."

The cold-weather shelter, established with city and private dollars, is used as a day shelter during summer months. And The Salvation Army recently won $1 million in federal grants to put up another building inside the 100,000-square-foot warehouse for transitional housing.

"It's become an opportunity to go from homelessness, to the center, to a number of opportunities to get back in the mainstream of life," said Brian Aird, business coordinator with The Salvation Army.

The transitional housing likely will have 20 to 30 beds, with two to a room, and a job and résumé training component. It would house people until they can switch to some kind of permanent housing, whether through a county program or by renting an apartment.

"The poor have always been with us and the poor will always be with us," Aird said.

The Modesto Gospel Mission started in 1948 as an outgrowth of the Rev. Billy Graham's third crusade. Graham's music director, Cliff Barrows, was from Modesto. After the successful event, $5,000 was left over, which was given to a group of Christian businessmen to start something for the homeless.

Today, the mission has a range of services, from classes to 300 shelter beds to offering more than 50,000 showers a year. It offered the city a huge head start when homelessness exploded in the late 1990s and remains a staple part of the area's fight against poverty.

For years in Turlock, United Samaritans Foundation, which provides more than 1,500 meals a day to homeless and disadvantaged families, and We Care, which grew out of the Turlock Community Collaborative and runs the emergency shelter, were the only game in town.

With help from the City Council and from California State University, Stanislaus, plans for a permanent year-round shelter were drafted for the B Street site. The downtown religious and business community protested the location and sidelined the plan.

Protesters organized at Harvest Christian Center. Ron Eivaz, the center's senior pastor, became the group's unofficial leader. After the permanent shelter plan was defeated, Eivaz and other ministers said they wanted to help and worked to form the Turlock Gospel Mission.

For many homeless, for We Care and for United Samaritans Foundation, those wounds run deep and taint some of the homelessness discussion in Turlock. But all parties seem to agree that if any homeless plan is to move forward, everyone in town has to be on the same page.

"We're not fighting or angry or anything like that," said Maris Sturtevant, a former director of United Samaritans Foundation and a We Care board member. "It's not that we're not capable of working together -- we are. If (the Turlock Gospel Mission's) goal is to help people, if our goal is to help people, then let's help people."

Bill Fagan has a foot in the faith-based and the government camps as executive director of the Housing Authority of Stanislaus County and as a member of the Turlock Gospel Mission and Eivaz's church.

"You can't change history. You can take today and move forward," Fagan said. "I don't think anyone has the answer unto themselves."

Fagan has promised the full force of the Housing Authority behind the city and hopes that the next step, possibly at Tuesday's meeting, will bring all players together to hash out a plan.

"We need to get away from (rivalry) and ask, 'What do we need to do to solve this problem?' Fagan said. "We need to talk about what we all can bring to the table now. What can we bring to the table in the future? What is the need?"

If Modesto can ...

Police officer Joey Mercado spent 10 years on the Turlock force before putting on a Modesto badge. In Modesto, he worked as a bike cop, primarily downtown, and saw the same faces over and over.

"I was arresting the same people two and three times a week," he said. "Then people would turn up dead -- hit by a car, hit by a train, OD'd. It just kept going and going."

Then the Modesto Police Department, the district attorney's office, the Superior Court bench, the Sheriff's Department and a host of service providers such as Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services decided to come up with a new approach -- the Habitual Transient Offender program.

George was rehab material years ago, but until a police officer extended a hand, he had no way to get there. He was Dumpster diving and recycling to keep his methamphetamine habit alive in the neighborhoods around Needham Avenue when he was picked up. With the Habitual Transient Offender program in effect, an officer offered help.

"What the hell can you do for me?" George remembered asking him.

The officer had him on possession of a shopping cart, possession of a syringe and violation of felony probation.

For starters, the officer said, he could have the charges dropped.

George started listening.

Police brought him to a Stockton rehab facility. George then moved to a Turlock recovery home, Solidarity Fellowship, which has 13 sober-living homes in Turlock and 38 in Stanislaus County.

Now George lives in a two- bedroom apartment with his lady friend, who also is in recovery, across the street from Turlock's City Hall. Neither have been in handcuffs in a long time.

If Modesto can do it, why can't Turlock, Police Chief Gary Hampton wondered.

Hampton, who has said "You can't arrest yourself out of homelessness" at each of his public appearances in the past month, recruited Mercado back to the Turlock Police Department to establish its Habitual Transient Offender program.

Five Turlock homeless people with mental health or addiction problems, or both, are eligible at any one time and will have the same district attorney, judge and treatment options as Modesto's Habitual Transient Offender program participants.

Modesto has seen success with the program -- success sometimes measured in driving a homeless person across state lines to reunite with family. The city also has seen a two-shelter system work and what happens when everyone works together.

"Any community in America of any size is asking the same question: What do we do with the homeless?" said Modesto Gospel Mission administrator Barbara Deatherage. "That discussion is just starting in Turlock. Maybe they're feeling birth pains."

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.

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