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A camp mom, a village council: Homeless community takes root at Modesto’s Beard Brook Park

Since the city of Modesto sanctioned Beard Brook Park as a campground for the homeless over a month ago, it has taken on a life of its own.

The 250-plus people who live in the park along Dry Creek that has become known as Beard Brook Village participate in weekly potlucks, have taken part in events with face painting and rock gardens for the children and are planning a Thanksgiving dinner.

Most notable, though, is a social system that has developed among the campers, in which six people make up a “village council.”

They help issue tents and supplies to newcomers and place them in one of four designated sections of the camp, maintain a food and supply pantry in each section, address issues and grievances from campers, hold weekly meetings and recently issued a code of conduct for the village.

And while there are some concerns among city officials who see potential problems with a large group of people who have decided to make their own set of rules, most agree that this structure has helped keep the peace at Beard Brook.

There have been no violent crimes there since the camp opened, just a few verbal arguments and no arrests.

“I think it is going better than anyone ever could have anticipated, including myself; I cannot believe how smooth this has gone,” said Melanie Slagle, 39, who has been homeless for five years and was staying in the airport neighborhood before coming to Beard Brook. “I don’t know if you took a different set of people and did this anywhere else if it would work, but it works right here, right now, with these people it works.”

Slagle is the “Camp Mom.”

She went to the park a few days after it opened and was inspired to see Modesto City Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer there, after business hours, on the phone with city staff asking why the portable toilets, hand washing station and garbage bin hadn’t yet been delivered. It wasn’t long before crews arrived with the items.

“She kinda got me motivated; there is someone actually advocating for us so maybe there should be someone amongst us to speak (on our behalf),” Slagle said. “I came down here to be a voice for people who really can’t articulate what our needs are.”

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 4 that prosecuting people sleeping outdoors because there are not enough shelter beds or alternatives amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The shelter options cannot be limited to those run by religious organizations that impose rules or “barriers” like prohibiting people from bringing their pets or staying with their partners.

Slagle’s Camp Mom role started as she worked with homeless advocates to relay the needs of the camp. Volunteer efforts and donations, much of which are coordinated through a Facebook page for the county’s homeless, came pouring in.

“Without the community support, volunteers and donations,” Slagle said, Beard Brook “would have belly-flopped.”

Slagle was responsible for making sure food, clothing and camping supplies were distributed equitably. As more people moved to the park, Slagle recruited a “move in specialist” to issue camping gear to newcomers and find them a spot in one of four sections of the park. Next, “area leaders” were appointed as the park was sectioned into three, then four areas and as of Wednesday a “Donation Committee” was started to handle supplies.

The center of the park has been designated for families with children, the south end is for people who prefer to function as a group and the north end, which has two sections, is for “solos” and those with disabilities because the handicap porta-potty is at that end.

Each section has an area leader; including Slagle and her “right-hand man” Bill, there are six people on the village council.

They maintain the restrooms and an area pantry, meet at the end of each day to discuss issues that have come up and more formally every Monday at 10 a.m. to find solutions to any ongoing problems or ways to better improve the camp.

At the meetings they have discussed issues like whether to allow vehicles into the camp and under what circumstances, ways to better accommodate people with disabilities, news reports about the camp and how they feel about them and how to settle disputes, which mostly have been over space.

An argument between two neighboring campers recently resulted in one being moved from the south end to the north.

Within the span of an hour while speaking with The Bee on a recent day, Slagle helped a woman find a pair of children’s pajamas at a clothing table and heard grievances from a woman upset because she was told there was no room for her on the south end but who has since seen others move in there and from a man who said another camper has taken over his tent.

Most recently, the village council issued a code of conduct with 10 rules covering everything from domestic violence and stealing to animal vaccinations and quiet hours.

“Originally it was two rules, don’t blow up the spot … and don’t steal,” Slagle said. “Blow up the spot — homeless people know this term — don’t do anything that causes negative attention; fighting, loud music, garbage, things that bring the cops; anything that disrupts the peacefulness of our village.”

She said this has had to be explained to some people new to homelessness so the code of conduct was created to better define those expectations.

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said “self-policing can work well” but “the city does not recognize that as being a city sponsored or city blessed initiative.”

He said Beard Brook was opened as a sort of “no barrier” shelter to comply with the court order so “any time you create these codes of conduct, that creates a barrier.”

He said he appreciates that what Slagle and the other leaders are doing is keeping the peace but said he doesn’t want it to get to the point where anyone is excluded because of it or that the group decides they don’t have to follow the city’s regulations.

Still, many believe this is working and is a model that could be carried over once a shelter is found.

Joetta Phillips,who camps in the family section of Beard Brook with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, said she feels safe there.

She said without the structure the place would be “crazy.” “People would be jacking your stuff and a lot of underhanded things,” she said.

Every day the county’s outreach and engagement team goes to Beard Brook to offer services including help with Social Security, veterans services, mental health care, addiction treatment and employment.

To address concerns of Hepatitis A and other communicable disease outbreaks, which has been an issue among the homeless in other cities throughout the state, the county’s Health Services Agency is bringing a mobile clinic to the park on Tuesday, said Public Health manager Anuj Bhatia. The clinic will offer flu and Hepatitis A vaccines as well as education about proper hand washing to prevent the spread of disease.

And the kindness of charities and individuals who donate their time and supplies to Beard Brook continues to help the camp thrive.

As for the shelter, Reeves said the county and city have discussed options including vacant land where a massive tent could be erected, buildings the city already owns or could buy that can be rehabbed, or even continuing to utilize Beard Brook or a combination of those options.

Whatever the long-term solution, many agree that for it to work, it should look something like what is being done at Beard Brook now.

“They are policing themselves and they are doing great job,” Councilwoman Kenoyer said. “If we try to break that type of existence and put restrictions on them, we will lose them.”

Slagle agrees. “It is not about what is ideal for the city anymore, it is about what is ideal for us,” she said. “If they want us out of the parks and off the streets and out of doorsteps, they are going to have to think about what our needs are, what we desire.”

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