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‘I don’t want to die out here.’ Documentary, panel to address homelessness in Modesto.

Modesto uses its heart to tackle homelessness

As complaints about the homeless soar, Modesto has rolled out an effort to help them and get them off the streets. The Homeless Engagement and Response Team — consisting of a police officer and a firefighter paramedic — started in July.
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As complaints about the homeless soar, Modesto has rolled out an effort to help them and get them off the streets. The Homeless Engagement and Response Team — consisting of a police officer and a firefighter paramedic — started in July.

No 60-minute film is going to solve the problem of homelessness. Modesto documentarian Richard Anderson knows this.

Maybe nothing can.

When it comes to prevention, it's easy to rattle off common causes: drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness, underemployment or loss of employment, lack of affordable housing. Overcoming them is another matter, Anderson said. "How are you going to prevent those wells, or springs, or fountains of homelessness from constantly refilling the pool out there? That’s the task we have to rise to, and it seems impossible to me."

Impossible or not, you don't stop trying, the retired Modesto Junior College biology professor said. His latest effort to help is "Homeless in Modesto," an hourlong documentary that will be shown July 19 at the State Theatre as a fundraiser for Family Promise of Greater Modesto. The nonprofit organization works to get families out of homelessness.

The event, from 7 to 9 p.m., also includes a panel discussion on topics including why people become homeless, how homelessness affects the community and how residents can get involved. The panelists are Councilwoman Kristi Ah You, police Chief Galen Carroll, Family Promise Executive Director Tamra Losinski, Focus on Prevention Initiative Chairman Brad Hawn and longtime homeless Modesto resident David Fuller.

The seed for the documentary was planted in 2012, Anderson said, when he was filming a candlelight vigil at the Salvation Army's Berberian shelter on Ninth Street in remembrance of the 11 homeless people who died in Modesto that year. A couple of homeless men in attendance asked if he'd be interested in recording their stories.

"Little did I know that lung cancer and the removal of a lung would draw the process out to five-plus years," the 74-year-old said.

Anderson refers to himself as the videographer of the film, which is "but a snapshot of homeless people and processes of the community in response." He estimated that 30 to 35 homeless people were interviewed.

Anderson began the documentary with John Lucas of the Modesto Peace/Life Center. Leng Nou joined as an interviewer, homeless advocate Frank Ploof found interview subjects, and Eric Caine served as still photographer and narrator.

The filmmakers had three goals, Anderson said: to present faces and voices of the homeless, to showcase some of the many organizations providing services to them, and to show viewers how they might help.

By helping, he means "not going out and giving food — that's not what they need." No one has to go hungry in Modesto with the services available, Anderson said. "What needs to happen is intervention. ...

"They need our sympathy and they need our tough love. Tough love is, 'When you're ready for us, society is here to help you out of this, we want to help you'."

Those interview subjects who made the cut had to have something to say that advanced the movie's goals, Anderson said. The filmmakers steered clear of the antisocial, he said, and didn't push interviewees to defend their logic, because some simply were illogical.

"Homeless in Modesto" addresses conflict, such as the homeless wanting places to stay vs. efforts like Operation 9-to-99, which works to clean out homeless camps and reclaim the Tuolumne River trails for recreational use. But the filmmakers tried to keep politics out of the documentary and present "just the facts," Anderson said.

Though the panel discussion was a late development, Anderson said he believes it's just as important as the film screening. "How often does someone get a chance to talk with Galen Carroll about the homeless?" he posed.

The police chief, who in the documentary talks about a brother who's been homeless and incarcerated, said he plans to follow no script when he talks July 19.

In an email to The Bee, he addressed the complexities of the homelessness problem. In the cases of people or families who have become homeless because of job loss or a tragic incident, the resources exist to help them get back on their feet, Carroll said.

But cases where a person's alcohol or drug abuse has taken precedence over all else in his or her life are much more difficult. "If an individual spends the majority of their waking life look for the next drink or fix, neglecting their own basic needs of housing, clothing etc., then it is a choice that individual is making and the community won’t be able to help until a different choice is made," the chief said. The pain of living in their condition has to be greater than the pain of going through addiction withdrawals.

And mental illness is a whole other challenge, Carroll said. "We have all seen homeless individuals that frankly we could give a room or housing to," but that would not solve the issues that prevent them from living a so-called normal life." Accepting mental health treatment and staying with it again depend on the individual.

Panelist David Fuller, homeless "off and on" since 2002, isn't interviewed in the movie but was asked to speak by Ploof and Caine, he said. Suffering no addictions or mental illness, Fuller said job loss was the primary reason he became homeless. The mailing house he worked for lost customers and had to downsize. At the same time, "my home life wasn't so good and dumped, too. It all hit me at once and I landed here," he said of homelessness.

He's had part-time, short-term jobs, but nothing steady. What he finds usually is manual labor, which he can do — but pushing 61, he doesn't know for how much longer.

His career was in retail, and over the years he's regularly tried to re-enter the work force, he said, but employers seek younger people. It's a shame, he said, because "there are a lot of good people out here, with skills that could still be used."

Fuller, recovering from a bout of gastrointestinal illness, spoke while sitting in Graceada Park on Tuesday. He typically lives along the river, he said. During the January 2016 homeless count in Stanislaus County, he was staying in Beard Brook Park.

Tuesday, he wore a freshly laundered, striped, button-up shirt. Fuller said he makes it a priority to stay clean and groomed, and the Modesto Gospel Mission and the Cleansing Hope Shower Shuttle have been of great help.

Recently, he largely gave up on looking for steady, long-term work because at age 62, he'll start drawing early-retirement Social Security. He hopes to find a home in a place like Ralston Tower because always in the back of his mind is one grim thought.

"I don't want to die out here, that’s one of my fears," he said. "With my luck, I’d be lying on the grass and somebody'd think I'm sleeping, and three days later they'd come up and find me dead. ... Rather die in a home, I guess."

To learn more: www.modestocahomelessdocumentary.org, www.facebook.com/modestohomelessdocumentary

July 19 screening: 7 p.m., State Theatre, 1307 J St., $5 admission

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