Modesto officials say allowing homeless people to camp in Beard Brook Park on a temporary basis has worked well but acknowledge it is not the ideal location and are working on finding an alternative.
The city opened the park to homeless campers Sept. 18 after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — whose jurisdiction includes California — ruled Sept. 4 that prosecuting people for sleeping on public property because there are not enough shelter beds or other alternatives amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Modesto continues to enforce its ordinances against camping in the city’s other roughly 70 parks as well as on private and other public property.
Beard Brook is along Dry Creek and south of Yosemite Boulevard and between the E.&J. Gallo Winery and Stanislaus Food Products, two longtime and iconic Modesto companies. The park’s south end abuts the Tuolumne River Regional Park’s gateway parcel.
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Modesto, volunteers, the Tuolumne River Trust and others have worked hard over the years to improve the regional park and make it a mecca for outdoor recreation after many years of its being a dumping ground and a site of homeless encampments.
That effort took a big step forward this summer with the removal of what was left of Dennett Dam, an eyesore and hazard near the Seventh Street Bridge.
Two Tuolumne River Trust officials and Chris Guptill, founder of Operation 9-to-99, a volunteer group that cleans up the river, raised concerns about the Beard Brook homeless camp at the City Council’s Tuesday meeting.
Meg Gonzalez, the trust’s director of education outreach, told council members she was frustrated with Modesto’s decision and this was another example of the city allowing its parks along the river to “take the brunt of our problems.”
Council members told Gonzalez and the others that the court decision forced Modesto to act and that Beard Brook is a temporary answer.
Gonzalez said Friday that homeless people need shelter and services but Beard Brook is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution. She said the Tuolumne River and its parks are on the cusp of a transformation, and she doesn’t want that effort to lose momentum.
Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said the city does not believe this is a setback. He said the city is monitoring Beard Brook and has put up temporary fencing along the creek.
He said the Oct. 20 RecFest still will happen and the city could open the new dog park in Beard Brook Park on the same day. RecFest features family fun in the Gateway Parcel. People attending the festival would park at Beard Brook. The dog park is on the northern end of the park, while the homeless campsites are on the southern end, with a baseball field and playground separating them.
But Reeves said Modesto shares concerns raised by the trust and Operation 9-2-99 as well as by Gallo and Stanislaus Food and is working diligently on finding another temporary location. He said that could be vacant land where the homeless can camp or an empty warehouse or building with space for beds.
“We know Beard Brook is not optimal,” Reeves said. “It’s not even a good short-term facility. ... We are looking at absolutely everything. We have maps, potential sites, things we own, what’s for sale. We are looking at absolutely everything.”
Besides finding an alternative to Beard Brook, Reeves said Modesto is working to find a location for a low-barrier shelter with services for the homeless. Unlike traditional ones, low-barrier shelters accept couples, pets and possessions. Some homeless people won’t stay at the Modesto Gospel Mission or The Salvation Army’s shelter because they cannot bring their dogs and are separated from their partners.
Reeves said Modesto is working with Stanislaus County on the low-barrier shelter. The county has proposed opening such a shelter in the two wings of the former Scenic General Hospital at its Scenic Drive government center but also has asked others to come up with alternatives.
Reeves said homeless outreach teams are visiting Beard Brook to connect people to services and police are providing regular patrols. He said there have been no problems. The city has brought in portable bathrooms and hand-washing stations and a Dumpster. Reeves said workers were fixing one of the park’s two drinking fountains Friday, and will fix the other one once parts are available.
There were about 30 campsites at Beard Brook park Friday morning. Several homeless people said camping in the park generally has worked well.
A 39-year-old woman, who declined to give her name, said letting homeless people camp in the park has brought a measure of stability to her and the other homeless people’s lives.
The woman, who said she has been homeless for five years, said she used to have to scramble to find a place to stay after police told her to move along. She said she had slept at Moose Park, Dry Creek, behind buildings and elsewhere.
The woman said she now has a foundation to improve her life. She said she has an outreach worker helping her with medical appointments and to resolve her court cases involving camping in city parks and being in a park when it is closed.