Driving in to work Friday, it felt like fall because it is, well, fall.
The daytime temperatures, in the 100s to begin the week, dropped into the 70s by the weekend. Ginkgo trees are beginning their annual turn from bright green to blinding yellow, and the curbs are filled up with leaves from the sycamores. And finally, there’s rain in the forecast, though probably not enough to cut the almond harvest dust.
On the short wall in front of the Stanislaus County Library on I Street, a couple of homeless gents sat focused on their smartphones, connected to the world through the free Wi-Fi and waiting for the library to open for the day, as they do nearly every morning.
They offered a reminder that the changing seasons bring the harshest conditions to those who live on the streets. The question is, where will they go when the rain starts and it gets really cold?
“It should be miserable,” said Michael, a 65-year-old man who recently became homeless and will experience his first winter on the streets unless he can somehow find housing.
With all of the talk and forward-thinking discussions about solving the problem of homelessness, are Modesto and other Stanislaus County cities any better prepared heading into this winter than previous winters? The answer is barely, if at all.
“The community has been educated as to what we are going through,” said Ralph Carpenter, a 61-year-old Modestan who is living at the Modesto Gospel Mission and working as a janitor at a local agency. “But as for action, is there really anything that’s going to put a roof over our heads, work clothes on us? … There’s no more right now, realistically, than there has been.”
A January count turned up 1,434 homeless people throughout the county, with 1,051 of them in Modesto. Between the Modesto Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army’s Haig and Isabel Berberian Shelter and Transitional Living Center, there are 235 available beds.
Every December, a group holds a vigil for the homeless who die in Stanislaus County – an average of 18 per year since 2011, with 26 perishing in 2015 alone. The causes of their deaths ranged from murder to drug abuse, to being struck by vehicles to illnesses and perishing in the elements.
“We’re still combating the issue,” said Kevin Carroll, the Gospel Mission’s executive director and CEO. When the weather’s good, he said it will be 70 percent full overnight. When it turns cold, they’ll see more people. The mission has 100 beds in the emergency shelter, for when the weather nears freezing.
“And we can bring out more cots,” he said. “We really do have more beds than last year.”
Plans to add 40 beds by creating low-barrier shelters in a secure setting adjacent to the Berberian facility at Ninth and D streets are taking longer than hoped. The Salvation Army wanted to open the facility in November, in time for the first of the cold snaps. Now it is looking more like late December at the earliest.
Carroll and others know it can’t begin to meet the needs. Many will still sleep in doorways and alleys and in parks. Some will be nudged along by the police and simply look for another place to exist out of the wind.
The county-driven Focus on Prevention involves developing longer-term plans to address homelessness among other societal issues. It represents a coalition of government, faith-based and nonprofit agencies, and some concerned individuals.
But the homeless on the streets now need help now. They get it from people like Frank Ploof and Leng Nou of the Modesto Peace Life Center, who go out on the cold nights to distribute coats, socks, gloves, blankets and whatever else they can get from clothing drives and from individuals. When it gets cold, they go out at night to find people in need.
“I’ll have my (car) trunk full,” Ploof said.
Last December, Nou and a friend went out on a night when the temperature dipped into the 20s to hand out coats and blankets.
The homeless get help from people like Lambert, a member of the local Guardian Angels, a group that seeks them out on the streets to help them feel safer. Church groups distribute food in the parks. Most recently, Church in the Park unveiled its Cleansing Hope Shower Shuttle, a mobile shower unit that provides hot showers to the homeless.
Homeless advocates, including Ploof and Lambert, believe the answer is housing and education: Get them off the streets and out of the elements, and they will be much more likely to accept the treatments and help they need.
“And educating the people about them,” Lambert said. “Break the stereotype that they’re all addicts who don’t want to take responsibility. My experience is that if you keep after them, a window opens up. When you’re freezing to death or you’re super hungry or you’ve been raped, those are life-changers (when it comes to accepting help).”
The fall wind picked up Friday afternoon, bringing the promise of nights that will soon turn much colder for some than others, and no different than winters past.