Tuolumne River Regional Park board OKs homeless camp on parkland

The Tuolumne River Regional Park Commission on Monday approved letting Modesto open a temporary homeless camp —which would provide shelter and services for several hundred people for six to nine months — on about 3 acres in the regional park.

Officials say the homeless encampment will buy them time as Modesto, Stanislaus County and its community partners work on providing more shelter beds and housing for homeless people.

Commissioners made their approval contingent upon the city returning the site to its original condition within 12 months and that the city come up with the funding for that work. Commissioners also asked for regular updates.

There has been a huge push in recent years to transform the regional park from a place where people dump their junk and trash and the homeless set up encampments to a recreational draw. That effort is starting to pay off, and park advocates fear a homeless camp, even a temporary one, will set that effort back.

Commissioners said they understand that concern and are committed to having the park reach its potential.

But Chris Guptill, who is vice chairman of the regional park’s citizens advisory board, questioned why the advisory board was not asked for its input, though he understood Monday’s emergency meeting was called on short notice.

And he said the homelessness crisis cannot be solved by looking to put people in parks and along the Tuolumne River. He said the entire community needs to be part of the solution.

But officials have faced opposition when they tried to do that. For instance, a Stanislaus County proposal this year to open a 60-bed shelter with services in part of the old Scenic General Hospital faced strong push back from homeowners in the nearby La Loma neighborhood.

The encampment will replace the one that has taken root at Modesto’s Beard Brook Park since mid September after the city opened the park to homeless campers to comply with a federal court ruling that said prosecuting people for sleeping on public property because there are not enough shelter beds or other alternatives amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Beard Brook has more than 400 people and has succeeded through a mix of self-governance, the generosity of volunteers, and homeless service providers. But most of the camp is on a slope, which is not good when it rains, and it is overcrowded.

Officials propose moving the camp several hundred feet to where the Ninth Street Bridge spans the regional park from South Morton Boulevard to the Tuolumne, though the camp will be about a couple of hundred yards from the river.

About half of the park will fit under the bridge. Officials say the camp will have a nonprofit operator, provide the homeless with services, and be cleaner, safer and better organized. They have said the homeless will be provided with tents and other essentials. And volunteers will be able to continue to help.

It was expected that the park commission would allow Modesto to open a homeless camp. Modesto is the lead agency of the 510-acre regional park, whose other members are Ceres and Stanislaus County.

The commission is made up two members of the Modesto City Council (Jenny Kenoyer and Kristi Ah You), two members of the county Board of Supervisors (Dick Monteith and Kristin Olsen) and one member of the Ceres City Council.

Monday’s vote was 4-0 with the Ceres council member not at the meeting.

The next step comes Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors is expected to authorize the county to negotiate an agreement with a nonprofit to operate the camp.

Officials have said it could take 30 to 45 days to relocate the camp, which includes the site preparation work.