Officials look to underneath Ninth Street Bridge as new home for Beard Brook homeless

Modesto and Stanislaus County are proposing a new spot for the homeless encampment that has taken root at Beard Brook Park — under the nearby Ninth Street Bridge.

Officials say moving the camp several hundred feet to underneath the bridge where it spans the Tuolumne River Regional Park from South Morton Boulevard to the Tuolumne will keep them dry and out of the muck and mud when it rains, though not all of the camp will fit under the bridge.

Most of the Beard Brook encampment is along a slope, and homeless campers had to deal with collapsing tents and mud during recent rains.

The camp also has become overcrowded, with more than 400 men, women and children living there. Officials also say their proposal calls for hiring a nonprofit called Turning Point Community Programs to operate the camp.

They say having a camp operator will build on the successes at Beard Brook by providing a camp on level ground that is cleaner, safer and more structured. Officials says campers will be provided with tents, sleeping bags and other essentials. Service providers, including Turning Point, and volunteers will continue to work with the homeless.

Officials also stressed this is a temporary solution while they work with community partners to provide more shelter beds and housing for the homeless. City and county officials discussed this proposal and laid out their other plans during a Friday afternoon meeting with The Modesto Bee Editorial Board.

The city 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.

The camp, which is in an industrial area, has thrived. It’s given homeless people a sense of stability and has allowed volunteers and service providers to work with a large number of homeless people at one location. City officials also said allowing the homeless to camp in one location has led to fewer homeless-related calls to police and fire in the rest of Modesto.

But city officials have stressed Beard Brook was not an ideal spot and was a short-term fix while they worked on a better option.

While officials have briefed city and county elected officials, this still is a proposal, and Modesto will need permission from the Tuolumne River Regional Park Commission to open a homeless camp in the regional park.

Modesto is the lead agency for the regional park, whose other members are Ceres and Stanislaus County. The commission includes elected officials from the three governments. The commission will hold an emergency meeting Monday on Modesto’s request.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected to vote on having the county negotiate a $500,000 agreement with Turning Point to operate the camp for six months. Half of the funding would come from the Stanislaus Community Foundation and half from the state.

Officials said it could take 30 to 45 days to relocate the homeless encampment.

But the Tuolumne River Trust — which is among the groups that have worked to restore the river and are working to develop the regional park into a recreational mecca — voiced concerns.

“I find it very frustrating,” Trust Executive Director Patrick Koepele said in a Friday phone interview. “The city has punted for years with coming up with a good solution for homeless people, and what they are proposing to do now is to put them under a bridge. That’s not a good plan for the people who will be living there, and it’s not a good plan for the river and the park.”

City Manager Joe Lopez at the Editorial Board meeting said this proposal is temporary and will not impact the long-term effort to transform the park.

This proposal was just one of several that city and county officials unveiled Friday:

Modesto and Stanislaus County are working with The Salvation Army on a proposal that calls for the army to more than double the number of emergency shelters beds at its Berberian Center at Ninth and D streets, from 120 to roughly 270. These beds would comply with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that limits the rules shelters can put in place.

The three are working on a plan to put a homeless access center in the Berberian Center. Officials say the center would provide comprehensive services and support shelters throughout the community.

The county is considering buying The Salvation Army’s headquarters at Seventh and I streets in downtown and turning it into a shelter and transitional housing for homeless families. The army has put its headquarters up for sale and wants to relocate those operations to its Berberian Center.

The City Council and the Board of Supervisors will consider Tuesday a proposal to hire the Downtown Streets Team, a Bay Area-based nonprofit that provides volunteer work and services for the homeless, with the funding coming from the two governments and the Stanislaus Community Foundation.

Police Chief Galen Carroll went to Beard Brook on Friday afternoon to tell residents about the plan to relocate them.

Several of the homeless people who spoke with The Bee said they were OK with moving, but one woman joked about setting up camp under a bridge. “It’s kind of a faux paus, a joke, a quip for the homeless to live underneath a bridge,” she said.

And the new camp could be noisy at times. At about 4 p.m. Friday, the steady hum off traffic on the bridge could be heard underneath the span.

Some homeless people feared the city was setting up a “FEMA camp” and the campers would be tightly controlled and regulated. But county Deputy Executive Officer Ruben Imperial, who was at Beard Brook, said that is not true and campers would be free to come and go.