Proposal for 180-bed Modesto homeless shelter reaches milestone

Modesto homeless settling in at bridge camp

The Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter had about 350 residents as of Thursday.
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The Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter had about 350 residents as of Thursday.

Stanislaus County and Modesto have reached a milestone in their partnership with The Salvation Army to provide more shelter and services for homeless people.

The Salvation Army announced Friday that its Western Territorial Headquarters in Southern California had approved a memorandum of understanding with the two governments that includes opening a 180-bed shelter in The Salvation Army’s Berberian Center near downtown Modesto.

The city and county are working with the local Salvation Army on the project. The shelter, which is just one component of the project, is expected to open by late summer or early fall.

“I believe this is great news for our community and especially those experiencing homelessness,” said Capt. Dwaine Breazeale, the army’s Stanislaus County coordinator, in a text message Friday.

This development comes as Modesto prepares to close Beard Brook Park on Monday. The city started letting homeless people camp in the park in mid-September after a federal court ruled it was cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping on public property when they did not have other alternatives.

A few hundred people were camping in Beard Brook, primarily along a small hill, but many have moved to the homeless camp the city and county opened nearly three weeks ago a couple of hundred yards away underneath and by the Ninth Street bridge in Tuolumne River Regional Park.

Beard Brook was mostly empty Thursday but was littered with the tents, tarps, bicycle parts, clothing and trash left behind by those who once lived there. Police officers have informed the homeless about Monday’s closure. Modesto will clean up and restore the park after it has assessed what needs to be done.

The new camp — officials are calling it the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter — had more than 350 residents as of Thursday, according to an estimate from Christina Kenney with Turning Point, the nonprofit the county hired to coordinate services at the camp.

Several homeless people said Thursday they like the camp better than Beard Brook because it’s cleaner, safer and better organized. They also had good things to say about Turning Point, which has workers at the camp 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, and the security guards the county brought in, who are at the camp 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day.

“It’s OK,” said a 12-year-old girl as several other children gathered around her. “It’s a little bit stricter but good at the same time because it’s keeping it more cleaner and keeping all the dogs on leashes and keeping it down at night. ... They had no rules over there (at Beard Brook).”

“I can come and go whenever I want,” said a 52-year-old woman who declined to give her name and said she became homeless after escaping from domestic violence. “The security is really nice. ... As long as you treat them with respect, they give you respect.”

A 51-year-old man who also declined to give his name said he was impressed that Turning Point was able to place two of his friends from the camp in housing. But he said these men have children, and families are a priority.

He said he became homeless about three and a half years ago after his marriage broke up, his life fell apart and he lost his job through his own fault. As a single man with a prison record and no income, he believes it will be harder for him to receive help.

“Therein lies the problem,” said the man, who said he had worked as a cabinet maker and granite fabricator and installer for much of his life until his recent problems. “I have a little bit of a background, penitentiary with a little bit of violence.”

Some homeless people have grumbled about the camp’s rules, which include quiet time from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and keeping dogs on leashes. Parts of the camp are muddy from the rain, despite work by the city to improve the drainage. And the campers have had to weather strong winds and the rain.

But the man said the camp is better than sleeping on the streets where the homeless can be preyed upon by other homeless people. “Nobody brought me here,” he said. “There’s a lot worse than this. ”

Some of the homeless can pose challenges. Some may be mentally ill and may have drug and-or alcohol addictions. Officials said the police were called to handle a few domestic violence calls in the camp’s first few days and a few homeless people had to be placed on 72-hour mental health holds Friday because they posed imminent threats to themselves or others or were gravely disabled by their mental state.

But officials said overall, the camp has worked well. “How’s it going? Actually incredibly smoothly,” said Kenney with Turning Point on Thursday.

She said Turning Point has been upfront with camp residents that it will not condone “any illegal behaviors and activities toward one another. But I think that is some accountability that some folks have never been allowed to have.”

She said Turning Point staff members are treating residents with respect and compassion and are there to listen. “Sometimes folks are frustrated with their circumstances of being homeless,” she said. “They talk about it, they kind of formulate a plan, and at least they have someone who is listening.”

The focus has been on getting the new camp established. But that soon will shift toward bringing in more services and service providers. The goal is to get as many homeless people as possible into housing before the camp closes. The county’s contract with Turning Point is through June 30, though it could be extended to mid-August.

The 180-bed shelter in the Berberian Center at Ninth and D streets would replace the homeless camp. The shelter would take couples, pets and possessions, and people could stay for as long as six months as they receive help.

The shelter would complement The Salvation Army’s traditional 120-bed shelter at the Berberian Center. But the 180-bed shelter is just one piece of an ambitious plan that will cost several million dollars, with the county using state homeless funding to cover a lot of the cost.

The other components include the county placing what it calls an access center on city land next to the Berberian Center. The center would be in modular buildings and serve as a hub for comprehensive services for the homeless.

The county also is looking at purchasing The Salvation Army’s building at Seventh and I streets in downtown Modesto for $1.25 million and converting it into transitional housing for youths and-or families. The county would relocate the army’s offices and other services at Seventh and I to a modular building on the Berberian Center property.

Officials have not released time lines for these two projects.

Modesto’s and Stanislaus County’s elected officials last month approved a draft of the memorandum of understanding and gave officials the authority to finalize the agreement with The Salvation Army.

County Chief Operating Officer Patty Hill Thomas said the memorandum provides a comprehensive framework for the project, spelling out the three parties’ responsibilities. She expects the memorandum will be signed within a couple of weeks along with some associated agreements, which are now being completed.

“It’s great news,” Hill Thomas said Friday about The Salvation Army approving the final memorandum of understanding. “It just demonstrates the strength of the partnership among the county, the city, and The Salvation Army.”

But she added the county and its partners have not lost sight of the need for more affordable housing. “Just sheltering people is not the end of the story,” she said. “It’s just the beginning of the story.”

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.