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Modesto approves response to homeless crisis; some warn about threat to Tuolumne River

Modesto’s Police Chief talks relocation with homeless

Modesto's Police Chief Galen Carroll talks to homeless people at Beard Brook Park Friday December 7, 2018 about a proposal to move them to a new encampment under the Ninth Street Bridge. Officials say it would be cleaner, drier and safer.
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Modesto's Police Chief Galen Carroll talks to homeless people at Beard Brook Park Friday December 7, 2018 about a proposal to move them to a new encampment under the Ninth Street Bridge. Officials say it would be cleaner, drier and safer.

The Modesto City Council on Tuesday night approved a resolution to declare a shelter crisis, which will bring in state funding to tackle the homeless problem. The city also decided to join a Stanislaus County partnership to contract a nonprofit that offers homeless people work training and jobs.

City Manager Joe Lopez said the two resolutions are part of an organized city and county effort to address the homeless problem, along with finding a new temporary spot for the encampment that has created a village at Beard Brook Park for the past few months.

“This is a multifaceted approach to homelessness, and we’re hitting it hard on multiple levels and from many different directions,” Lopez said at the council meeting.

While those efforts to help homeless people were welcomed, some at the city council meeting voiced strong opposition to Modesto’s decision to move the encampment to an area underneath the Ninth Street Bridge. They said the move would threaten to undo all the hard work to clean up the areas along the nearby Tuolumne River and invite recreational use.

Meg Gonzalez, the Tuolumne River Trust’s director of education outreach, said moving the encampment closer to the river sends a message to voters that “when push comes to shove, our river parks are an expendable luxury.”

“The community doesn’t deserve to have our river parks be used as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution to our homeless problem,” Gonzalez told the city council.

Stanislaus County and the cities within it are eligible for slightly more than $7.23 million from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program, also referred to as HEAP. It’s part of a $500 million grant program signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in June to help counties and cities throughout the state.

Only the cities and the counties that declare a shelter crisis are eligible to receive the HEAP money. The deadline to apply for this funding is Dec. 31. Modesto’s council voted unanimously to declare a shelter crisis.

The city council also voted unanimously to contract with the Bay Area-based nonprofit group Downtown Streets Team. The group will recruit crews of homeless people, who will clean up areas throughout the city in exchange for services to help them transition into stable housing and jobs.

Chris Richardson, chief program officer for the Downtown Streets Team, said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the Modesto program could be ready to start in February and help up to 100 homeless people.

“To get them from survival mode to goal-setting mode,” Richardson told the council members.

The nonprofit group can work with a crew of up to 25 volunteers at a time. Richardson said the program throughout the region has helped more than 900 homeless people move into stable housing and 850 people into long-term employment.

The Downtown Streets Team program started in Palo Alto in 2005 and has since spread to a dozen Northern California communities, including Sacramento, San Jose, San Francisco, Sunnyvale and Hayward.

The homeless people in the program can volunteer as many as 20 hours a week cleaning up parks, downtown areas and other public spaces, such as alleys, vacant lots, walking and biking trials, and canal banks.

They also will pick up litter, garbage and other debris from the homeless encampment under the Ninth Street Bridge. And they will be tasked to provide outreach to help other homeless people living in the encampment, directing them to community resources.

“Homeless people helping other homeless people out of homelessness,” Richardson said. “When you can make people feel better about themselves, it opens up a million doors.”

The Downtown Streets Team is offering to help homeless people:

  • Find jobs

  • Rebuild self-esteem, motivation and hope
  • Increase engagement in mental health treatment
  • Reduce emergency room visits

The Downtown Streets Team does not pay its participants in cash. Instead, they give homeless people weekly stipends, including grocery store gift cards The nonprofit group also could buy a homeless person a cell phone or bus passes or pay for other essentials, such as medicine.

The Downtown Streets Team will host weekly success meetings to check in with volunteers and serve as an entry point for other homeless people interested in joining the program. And the meetings can become a venue to offer housing resources and job leads. Volunteers are required to attend at least two of these meetings before they can join the program, Richardson said.

The Downtown Modesto Partnership group, also known as DOMO, already has cleanup crews who remove litter and graffiti while offering help and directions to visitors.

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said city officials have already spoken with Josh Bridegroom, DOMO’s president and CEO, who is supportive of the Downtown Streets program. Reeves said the homeless volunteers can be dispatched throughout the city, not just downtown Modesto.

Reeves said Wednesday that the two cleanup programs “very much complement each other.”

TEAM CONTRACT

The city council approved a resolution to join a partnership with Stanislaus County and the Stanislaus Community Foundation to pay for a three-year $1.35 million contract with the Downtown Streets Team. Modesto would pitch-in $300,000 for the contract; the county’s responsible for $600,000; and the foundation would pay the rest.

The United Way of Stanislaus will be the contact administrator. The United Way also will accept private donations to help offset the original funding costs.

In an agenda report submitted to the city council, Modesto officials said their research of Downtown Streets Team efforts in other cities indicated that only initial funding is typically needed, since the program’s success has proven to help it achieve self-sufficiency.

Additional funding partners for the Downtown Streets Team program in Modesto could include public utilities companies and irrigation districts, in addition to private and public partners. The program’s goal is to go beyond the three-year contract and continue to support homeless people, according to city officials.

HEAP FUNDING

The available $7.23 million in HEAP funding is based on the average homeless population of 1,600 people in Stanislaus County. About 1,200 of them are homeless people in Modesto, including the more than 400 living in an encampment in Beard Brook Park.

Only the cities and the counties that declare a shelter crisis are eligible to receive the HEAP money. Modesto’s city council voted unanimously to declare a shelter crisis. Earlier Tuesday, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors also declared a shelter crisis.

The HEAP money would fund immediate assistance efforts, such as homeless prevention activities, criminal justice diversion programs for those with mental health needs, and establishing or expanding services for homeless youths or youths at risk of homelessness and emergency aid.

The state funding could be used for emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, improvements to buildings that offer services for homeless people, street outreach, health and safety education, rental assistance and housing vouchers.

“(Homeless) shelters gain most of the attention, and they are a critical part of the system, but they’re not the solution for our community,” Stanislaus County Chief Executive Officer Jody Hayes told the city council Tuesday. “Housing is the solution, housing at all levels.”

HEAP money would be handed over to the Stanislaus Community System of Care, which formed a HEAP workgroup that includes the county’s chief executive officer and city managers from Modesto, Turlock, Ceres, Oakdale, Riverbank and Patterson.

Hayes said local leaders want to restructure the Stanislaus Community System of Care, which currently has more than 10 funding sources with different requirements, authorities and agencies involved.

“When everyone divides responsibility, no one is responsible,” Hayes told the city council.

He said they propose creating one system with one funding mechanism and one governing structure that can determine how to best spend money to help homeless people. It would include a governing body of city and county elected officials, along with representatives of community groups working to solve the homeless problem.

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