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Modesto — dumping ground for the homeless?

Erica Rubio says she has been homeless for 13 years in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.
Erica Rubio says she has been homeless for 13 years in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017. aalfaro@modbee.com

A claim that comes up frequently about the homeless in Modesto is that some of them are not from here. They come here because other cities bused them here.

That claim came up this month during a candidates forum for Modesto Council District 2 in which moderator and talk radio host Kevin Fox from Power Talk 1360 asked the candidates about the homeless.

His question included these remarks: “We now know that it is true that some communities in the Bay Area through a program called homeward bound have been busing homeless people out of that community and many of them we know now for a fact are landing right here in the beautiful California Central Valley.”

Fox later said he was speaking specifically about San Francisco’s homeward bound program. He said the program spent up to a $1 million last year providing one-way bus tickets to anywhere the homeless wanted to go. “We’re finding out that many of these people are choosing, because they can choose wherever they want to go, to come to the Central Valley,” he said.

Fox asked whether these homeless people should be shipped back or what should be done if they stay. Councilman Tony Madrigal and challenger Homero Mejia did not address the question head on. Jon Rodriguez — the third candidate in the race — did not attend the forum.

But San Francisco’s homeward bound program is not inundating Modesto with its homeless.

The program provides one-way bus tickets to 800 to 900 people annually to reunite them with family or friends willing and able to take them in, said Randy Quezada, communications and community relations manager for San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

He said the program sends people throughout the United States, but in the last 12 months it sent about a half-dozen people to Modesto. He said the program sent no one to Manteca or Ceres or Turlock during the same time period.

Fox said he could not comment for this story until he received approval from his employer. But his claim is a common one.

“I’ve heard a lot of chatter about that,” said Jason Conway, interim executive director of the Modesto Gospel Mission, which operates a 100-bed emergency shelter for men and a 35-bed emergency shelter for women and children. Conway has worked for the mission for a decade and said he has not seen evidence of other cities busing homeless to Modesto. “I’ve heard that,” he said, “but I don’t buy into it.”

Officials with The Salvation Army’s Modesto Citadel Corps did not respond to requests for comment. Modesto Police Department spokeswoman Heather Graves said the department is not aware of homeless being bused here.

Cities across the nation think other communities export their homeless to them. “This is pretty much an urban myth. It does happen, but not to the extent that people think,” said Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C.

For instance, The Sacramento Bee reported in 2013 that a Las Vegas hospital had put about 1,500 mentally ill patients on Greyhound buses over five years and sent them to communities across the nation, including 500 to California communities. The newspaper reported many were sent to cities where they had no treatment or support, and some became homeless.

But Hustings said studies show 75 percent to 80 percent of the homeless in any given community are from that community. And the homeless who move to another city typically do so for work or because they have family there, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

The percentages Hustings cited are in line with the most recent annual homeless count in Stanislaus County. The count took place in January and tallied 1,661 people, including 1,221 in Modesto. These counts are conducted by communities nationwide as part of applying for federal funding for the homeless.

The volunteers who conduct the Stanislaus count try to survey as many of the homeless as they can. Of the 1,001 homeless people surveyed in January, about 72 percent said they had been living in Stanislaus County when they became homeless. About 7 percent said they had been living in Merced or San Joaquin counties, and about 7 percent said the Bay Area. The rest said they had been living elsewhere in California or out of state, though about two dozen did not answer the question.

One 50-year-old homeless man who gathered downtown Friday afternoon with several other homeless people said he came to Modesto from San Jose about 20 years ago. He only wanted to be identified by his first name. Jim said he came here to live with his sister after getting kicked out of rehab. “I was getting into too much trouble,” Jim said about why he left the Bay Area. “I couldn’t stay clean.”

He said he’s been homeless for about two years since his sister died, and this is his third and longest period of homelessness. He and the other homeless people gathered downtown said they weren’t aware of cities busing homeless people to Modesto. County Deputy Executive Officer Ruben Imperial said officials would take action if there is proof communities are doing this.

“If we have any direct reports that there are groups of people being bused to our community, we would take this very seriously and would be taking it up with any county or municipality that is busing people here,” said Imperial, who oversees the effort to deal with homelessness called Focus on Prevention.

Imperial said he and other officials hear the claim that the homeless are being bused here but don’t have evidence to prove or disprove it. He said as Focus on Prevention works more closely with the homeless it will learn more about them, including how and why they came here if they are not locals.

Imperial said Focus on Prevention also is looking into reports that some of the mentally ill who are placed by other counties in local board and care homes are becoming homeless once they are no longer under what is called conservatorship. That was a concern Madrigal raised when he responded to Fox’s question.

Fox said at the candidates forum that the homeless come here for the weather, because this is a great place to live, and we offer plenty of services. There is no question many people, nonprofits, houses of worship, government agencies and others work hard on behalf of the homeless. But are we that generous?

“All municipalities say the homeless come there because they are so generous,” said Friedenbach with the Coalition on Homelessness.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316

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