Modesto opens up Beard Brook Park to the homeless

Homeless resident Robert Burgin was told by police to relocate his camp Graceada Park to Beard Brook Park. Photographed in Modesto , Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.
Homeless resident Robert Burgin was told by police to relocate his camp Graceada Park to Beard Brook Park. Photographed in Modesto , Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Modesto will let homeless people camp in Beard Brook Park as it works toward providing more shelter beds, after a federal appeals court recently ruled that people cannot be prosecuted for sleeping on public property when they don’t have viable alternatives.

But city officials stressed that letting homeless people camp in Beard Brook — which has been closed for several years — is a temporary solution while Modesto, Stanislaus County and others work on increasing the number of beds for the homeless as well as services.

Officials said they are working with The Salvation Army and the Modesto Gospel Mission, which each operate homeless shelters.

Golden Valley Health Centers has started a program that brings healthcare to homeless people, including providing basic care and driving them to doctors' appointments.

Police Chief Galen Carroll said Modesto is working out the details to provide portable toilets, sanitation, regular cleanups and security at Beard Brook. It is along Dry Creek and south of Yosemite Boulevard and between the E.&J. Gallo Winery and Stanislaus Food Products.

But officials emphasized Modesto will continue to enforce all of its ordinances against camping on private and public property — including the city’s roughly 70 other parks — and against being in a park when it is closed.

“Beard Brook is just a short-term response to meet the requirements of the recent ruling, and it allows us to look at long-term solutions,” Assistant Police Chief Rick Armendariz said.

Armendariz said police officers cite someone for camping in a park or being in a park when it is closed as a last resort. He said connecting people to services is the first option.

A three-judge panel of 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 panel ruled on a 2009 lawsuit brought by homeless people and others challenging Boise’s camping and disorderly conduct ordinances, which ban sleeping in public. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction includes California as well as several other western states.

Boise on Tuesday asked an 11-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the three-judge panel’s decision.

Escalon released body camera footage Friday of its officers' Aug. 15 interaction with two homeless people. The officers drove the couple to Modesto, which drew the ire of Modesto and Stanislaus County.

Modesto’s decision also comes after tents and campsites sprung up at Graceada and Cesar Chavez parks in recent days. Carroll said his department received dozens of complaints Tuesday about the campsites.

“The thing we have happening is individuals now think its OK to erect shantytowns and tents around the city,” Carroll said. “That’s not the case ... I’m not going to give up all of the city of Modesto.”

Some of the homeless people camping in Graceada Park said Tuesday that officers initially told them it was OK to camp in the park, but the homeless said officers were telling them Tuesday they had to leave.

Carroll attributed that to initial confusion as Modesto reviewed the appeals court decision and came up with a plan.

The appeals court ruling comes as Stanislaus County considers declaring what is called a shelter crisis because there are more homeless people in the county than shelter for them.

Annual counts of homeless people in the county and its nine cities show about half are not in emergency shelters or transitional housing but living outdoors.

The shelter crisis declaration would streamline the process to open emergency shelters and lead to more state funding for local homeless programs. The county’s nine cities also could consider declaring shelter crises.

Officials said Modesto City Council members have been briefed on opening up Beard Brook to the homeless and the other developments.

City Attorney Adam Lindgren said he expects he and other city officials will be “working with the City Council in short order to talk about these immediate solutions and making certain limited updates to the (city’s) ordinances.”