Officials inch closer toward relocating Beard Brook homeless camp

Officials had hoped by now to have relocated the homeless camp in Modesto’s Beard Brook Park a couple of hundred yards away to a field in the nearby Tuolumne River Regional Park, but the move has hit a few snags, including rainwater pooling in several spots at the new site.

City spokesman Thomas Reeves said Friday the city has drained the biggest spot where the water pooled, which was about the size but not the depth of a backyard swimming pool, and the other spots have drained. He said the city has added more dirt in some areas, changed the slope in others and done other work to keep the new camp well-drained after it rains.

He said the encampment — which officials have said is home to more than 400 homeless men, women and children — could be relocated during the first full week in February, but said that is based on weather and reaching an agreement with the nonprofit that will coordinate services at the camp.

The National Weather Service in Sacramento said it might rain Wednesday in Modesto, and there could be rain the next weekend. Stanislaus County and Turning Point Community Programs have been in negotiations over the past few weeks to have the nonprofit coordinate services at the camp.

County Deputy Executive Officer Ruben Imperial said the hurdle has been resolving the insurance and liability issues for a site that has some challenges because it’s not a traditional brick-and-mortar homeless shelter.

“There is no signed agreement right now,” Imperial said Friday evening after participating in a conference call that included county and Turning Point officials as well as attorneys and insurers. “But we continue to negotiate and work through the issues.”

Turning Point CEO Al Rowlett said after the conference call: “I’m very optimistic. But we are providing services in a park. We need to make sure we get the right insurance coverage. We have to do it right. It’s a challenge, but we will get there.”

Rowlett said his nonprofit has plenty of experience working with homeless people but not in this kind of environment.

Modesto allowed homeless people to camp in Beard Brook Park, which is in an industrial area south of Yosemite Boulevard, in mid-September 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.

There are more homeless people in Modesto than shelter beds. The 2017 annual count of homeless people in Stanislaus County tallied 1,661 people, with 1,221 of them in Modesto. These annual counts show that about half of the homeless people are not in shelters.

Many homeless people have said they feel safe at Beard Brook, and it’s given them a foundation to better their lives. They said because they aren’t scrambling to find a place to sleep each night, they can focus on getting health care, IDs and other services.

And it’s been easier for homeless service providers and volunteers to help the homeless now that so many of them are in one location. Modesto officials also say the number of police and fire calls related to the homeless has dropped dramatically elsewhere in the city.

But Beard Brook has been challenging, too. Most of the tents are along a slope, and some flood when it rains. There also are problems with litter and trash and portable toilets, with some homeless people smearing excrement along the walls. There also are a lot of dogs that are not on leashes.

The new camp will be under the Ninth Street Bridge, where it spans the Tuolumne River Regional Park. About half of the camp will fit beneath the bridge. But officials say the new site will be on level ground and an improvement over Beard Brook. Officials say the new camp will be cleaner, safer and more organized with Turning Point at the site. Beard Brook does not have an operator.

The new camp will have 300 10-foot-by-10-foot tents donated by a Reno-based company called Qamp. Richard DeGette, the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services director, secured the donation. He is good friends with the husband and wife who own Qamp.

Modesto-based Delta Sierra Beverage picked up the tents, which the Police Department is storing. And the United Way of Stanislaus County is collecting donations toward the purchase of sleeping bags and other supplies for the new camp.

Officials have said Beard Brook is a temporary fix in response to the circuit court ruling, and the new encampment also will be temporary. The county has discussed having Turning Point coordinate services at the new camp until June 30 with the county picking up the cost, which could be as much as $500,000.

County officials have said half of the money would come from the $2.5 million that Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, secured in the state budget nearly two years ago for Stanislaus County to address homelessness and half would come from the Stanislaus Community Foundation.

Imperial said the county will provide the budget for the new encampment once the contract has been completed with Turning Point. But he said roughly 72 percent of the costs will be for Turning Point to staff the camp with two or three people at a time from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. He said the camp would have security guards from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. with the county picking up that cost.

Imperial said these temporary solutions are giving the city and county time to work on long-term solutions, including increasing the number of emergency shelter beds and the amount of transitional housing. He said he expects in the coming months officials will announce recommendations on how to do this.

Reeves, the Modesto spokesman, said officials had hoped to relocate the camp starting Jan. 21. He said the city and county and its partners have been working diligently, but it’s difficult to foresee every issue that can come up, especially when the project is establishing a homeless encampment.

“For a government to move this quickly and make decisions as quickly as we have is frankly pretty unprecedented,” he said.

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.