‘There are too many people’ – Modesto homeless camp nears tipping point

One of the leaders of the Beard Brook Park homeless encampment believes the nearly three-month-old village is nearing a tipping point because too many people are jammed together in too little space.

“We are at over capacity,” said Melanie Slagle in a Monday interview at the Modesto park. She is the camp mom at what the homeless and their supporters are calling Beard Brook Village. “There are too many people. All it takes is one little thing. ... They (the city) need to open up another site.”

Slagle — who has been homeless for five years — estimated the encampment’s population at roughly 500 people. The city is allowing camping in about half of Beard Brook, which is in an industrial area south of Yosemite Boulevard.

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said city and county officials are working on an alternative. “We don’t disagree,” he said, “and that’s why we are moving ... to get this fixed.”

Reeves said Modesto and Stanislaus County officials are meeting daily on alternatives. Reeves said one option could be to open up more of Beard Brook for the campers. Right now, the ball field and dog park are off limits to the campers.

Reeves said he expects an alternative will be brought to the City Council soon.

Modesto opened Beard Brook to homeless campers Sept. 18 after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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.

City officials have said Beard Brook was a temporary solution until a better alternative was found, but they also have said the encampment has worked better than they expected.

The campers have set up their own council and have relied upon the support of a small army of volunteers as well as homeless outreach workers. Modesto has brought in portable toilets and hand-washing stations as well as a dumpster.

“We haven’t had any major issues,” said Modesto police Sgt. Mike Hammond, who usually visits the park about twice a week and tries to stay for a couple of hours. “They have done a good job of policing themselves.”

Many of the tents are along a slope, and the recent rains were a challenge, with some tents collapsing, blankets getting soaked, and campers dealing with mud and muck.

“We had a lot of learning experiences,” Slagle said about the rain. “... I learned I had a river running through my tent.”

But she said the more pressing concern is the overcrowding.