Fears grow that hard work to transform regional park will be lost to homeless camp

Damage by homeless jeopardizes beauty of Gateway Park

Chris Guptill, founder of Operation 9-2-99, talks about vandalism to Gateway Park on Tuesday, March 26, 2019, since the opening of the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter in Modesto, Calif..
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Chris Guptill, founder of Operation 9-2-99, talks about vandalism to Gateway Park on Tuesday, March 26, 2019, since the opening of the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter in Modesto, Calif..

One of the Tuolumne River Regional Park’s biggest volunteers and advocates fears that what happened at Modesto’s Beard Brook Park could happen in the regional park’s Gateway Park now that officials have moved the homeless camp to Gateway.

The few hundred homeless people who had been living in tents in Beard Brook left behind a mess of trash and debris when officials closed the park about a month ago and the homeless moved to the new camp a couple hundred yards away underneath the Ninth Street Bridge in Gateway Park.

Unlike Beard Brook, the new camp has workers from a nonprofit on site every day as well as security guards. Officials say the new camp is cleaner, safer and better operated and has more services.

Chris Guptill — the founder of Operation 9-2-99, a volunteer effort to clean up the regional park and river — said some of the homeless at Beard Brook went into Gateway and cut down wooden trail markers and tree branches for cooking and warming fires and ripped up the plastic matting used as the base for trails.

Guptill said problems have continued since the new camp — which officials are calling the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter — opened. He said homeless people are repeatedly opening up the temporary chain-link fence at the back of the camp to gain direct access to the river.

Guptill pointed to a steady stream of homeless people coming and going through the opening as well as shopping carts and trash in the park during a Tuesday afternoon tour. He also has spotted homeless people digging up the gravel along trails. He said they told him they used the gravel at the camp. The new camp has had drainage problems when it rains.

Guptill spoke with one homeless man who was shoveling gravel into a wheelbarrow Tuesday afternoon for his tent. Guptill tried to engage the man, asking him why he didn’t bring his problem to officials at the camp. The man essentially told Guptill to mind his own business.

Guptill also is concerned about the camp residents who walk their dogs, including pit bulls, in Gateway Park without having them on leashes.

He said he understands homeless people need shelter and services and not everyone at the Ninth Street Bridge camp is causing trouble. But he said it only takes a few people to cause problems.

He said it is frustrating to see all the hard work done by so many to improve Gateway Park damaged by the senseless acts of a few. Guptill is part of the effort to transform the regional park from the site of homeless encampments and a dumping ground for people’s junk into a recreational gem.

He said that effort has been paying off in recent years. For instance, he said, the RecFest held this month at the regional park’s Legion Park drew 450 people. People can fish, hike, kayak, ride mountain bikes, take part in birdwatching and other activities during these festivals.

“We are trying to change the culture,” Guptill said. “We are trying to get families and others to recreate along the river ... We are worried about vandalism and the cruel acts of a few. We want to guard against that. We can have (the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter) and the park. But we don’t need to have the damage that goes along with it.”

Modesto and Stanislaus County officials said they understand and share Guptill’s concerns.

City spokesman Thomas Reeves said officials are working on making the fencing more secure. He said there is a plan to soon add more county and city workers as well as security guards at the camp.

“We are learning what it takes to support and secure such a site,” county Deputy Executive Officer Ruben Imperial said. “And as we are learning about the challenges, we are putting things in place.”

Modesto opened Beard Brook to homeless people 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 adequate alternatives.

But officials said Beard Brook was a temporary solution until something better could be found.

The Ninth Street Bridge camp is expected to operate through June 30, but that could be extended to mid-August. This gives officials time to work on providing more shelter and services for the homeless, including a project to open a 180-bed shelter with services at The Salvation Army’s Berberian Center near downtown.

Imperial said the Ninth Street Bridge camp has about 385 residents and essentially is at capacity. But officials plan on bringing in at least one large tent with cots to provide more shelter.