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Report: Modesto among cities that make homelessness a crime

Homeless people camp out in Beard Brook Park in Modesto in 2014.
Homeless people camp out in Beard Brook Park in Modesto in 2014. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto is listed among the dozens of U.S. cities in a new report about how cities make it a crime to be homeless through ordinances that ban camping in parks, sitting or sleeping in public and other conduct.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty released its “Housing Not Handcuffs” report this week. It highlights the need to provide more housing to deal with the homelessness crisis. The center says it is more humane and far less expensive to provide the homeless with housing than to arrest them and have them in and out of jail and the hospital.

For instance, the report cites a 2014 analysis that looked at the cost of chronic homelessness in central Florida. The analysis determined it cost about $10,000 a year to provide housing and case management for a homeless person vs. about $31,000 a year to let that person remain on the streets. The higher expense included spending on law enforcement and medical costs.

The center has tracked 187 cities – including Modesto – since 2006. The cities were picked in part because they represent all of the United States in terms of geography and city size. The most recent report includes a “2016 prohibited conduct chart” listing 11 ordinances that make such activities as camping in public, living in a car, begging and loitering or providing the homeless with food in public a crime.

Modesto has six of these ordinances: sitting or lying in particular public places, living or sleeping in vehicles, camping in public, camping in particular public places, loitering or loafing in particular public places and begging in particular public places, according to the chart.

The report analyzed whether the cities have these ordinances, but did not look at how vigorously they enforce them. But the report states these cities have ordinances that criminalize ordinary behavior – such as sleeping and sitting – that the homeless are forced to conduct in public.

The “Housing Not Handcuffs” report concluded that ordinances criminalizing homelessness have increased significantly in the past decade. For instance, ordinances banning living in vehicles increased 143 percent; ordinances banning camping in particular public places, such as parks, increased 48 percent; and ordinances banning sleeping in public increased 31 percent.

The report states there is a nationwide shortage of affordable housing for poor people and not enough shelter beds for the homeless, conditions that are true in Stanislaus County. The report advocates for more investment in affordable housing to reduce homelessness.

But there is a local effort underway to find lasting solutions to homelessness called Focus on Prevention, which Stanislaus County launched about 1 1/2 years ago. That effort includes proposals to open a one-stop center and low-barrier shelter in Modesto. The center would provide a single access point for the homeless to get help. And unlike traditional ones, a low-barrier shelter accepts couples and pets. The proposal is for the low-barrier shelter to have 40 beds.

Modesto has not added more ordinances in recent years, though the city has considered limiting where people can provide food to others in public places because of complaints of littering, the homeless congregating, drug use, drinking and vandalism.

Senior Deputy City Attorney John Goulart handles roughly 30 cases a week involving homeless people suspected of violating city ordinances. He said the most common violations involve camping on public or private property or in a city park and being in a city park when it is closed.

He said his goal is to see homeless people turn their lives around and avoid jail or fines. Goulart said he will ask judges to dismiss the cases of homeless people who have done that or postpone cases to give them more time to change their lives – such as getting a commercial driver’s license reinstated – before asking for cases to be dismissed.

“There is a good percentage that is dismissed,” he said. “It’s big. It’s not my focus to jail people or fine them. Our goal is to get them back into the mainstream and not living in the parks.”

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316

For more information

Go to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty website, www.nlchp.org. The website includes a link to the “Housing Not Handcuffs” report.

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