Where will Modesto’s homeless go when shelter opens and there’s not enough room?

Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter nears capacity

Doug Holcomb, Operations Manager at the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter talks Monday about the creative measures the county is taking to accommodate more residents at the camp that is nearly full.
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Doug Holcomb, Operations Manager at the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter talks Monday about the creative measures the county is taking to accommodate more residents at the camp that is nearly full.

Stanislaus County and the city of Modesto have a math problem.

They expect to open a homeless shelter with 180 beds by late summer or early fall that will replace the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter, an encampment with about 400 residents. And officials say they will close the outdoor shelter by the end of the year.

So when the outdoor shelter closes, what happens to the homeless who don’t have a bed at the new one? That was a top concern during a public meeting on homelessness Wednesday among city and county officials and about four dozen community members in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place.

The fear is that unless officials provide them with another location or locations, these homeless people will go back to living elsewhere in the city and some will bring problems with them, including vandalizing property, using drugs and camping in city parks, and relieving themselves in public, problems that will fall on homeowners and business owners.

Problems have diminished since Modesto let homeless people camp in Beard Brook Park starting in September. The city and county then in February opened the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter nearby in the Tuolumne River Regional Park as a temporary replacement to Beard Brook.

Officials did this in response to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Sept. 4 that prosecuting homeless people who sleep in parks and other public property because they don’t have a choice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Modesto attorney Robert Fores, whose office is downtown, told city and county officials at Wednesday’s meeting that while he appreciated officials’ efforts to provide transitional and permanent housing, that will take years and an answer is needed soon for when the outdoor shelter closes.

“You are going to have all those people back in our areas,” Fores said. “There has to be a solution now or in the near future. ... We cannot minimize that. You are probably looking at several years before you can get your transitional housing in effect. I get that.

“But in terms of us and our businesses and our properties, we’re looking at right now. ... I really want to know where we are heading. What are the other locations, if at all, being considered? You can tell from my voice I’m upset. I’ve been upset for a long time. We want to help you, but we need specifics.”

Fores is part of a group of about a dozen people, primarily downtown business and property owners or with other connections to downtown, who have been meeting informally with city and county officials about homelessness.

County CEO Jody Hayes told audience members the city and county are working on an answer. “We have to have some form of relief factor in place to address any of the individuals that don’t move over to the other shelter,” he said.

Hayes did not share a lot of details but said officials are looking at trying to develop what he called “a more distributed shelter concept so that we do not have large impacts in any one particular place in the community. And it’s not just the city of Modesto. It’s beyond the city of Modesto. It’s throughout the rest of the community as well.”

He said officials are looking at secure locations where homeless people could sleep for the night. He did not envision more than a handful of people at each location, and the locations would not offer services.

But Hayes stressed that just providing emergency shelter beds is not enough and officials continue to work on transitional and permanent housing as well as services for those who want help. He said outreach workers and service providers have placed some Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter residents in housing and that work will continue.

But he expressed the difficulty in doing this work. “I will tell you it’s been a tremendous lift for us just to plan and get support for and move forward with building 180 beds,” he said.

Supervisors Kristin Olsen and Terry Withrow, Mayor Ted Brandvold and Modesto City Manager Joe Lopez joined Hayes at the meeting.

Stanislaus County and Modesto are working with The Salvation Army to open a 180-bed shelter with services inside the Army’s Berberian Center at Ninth and D streets near downtown. 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.

Some audience members renewed their request for officials to open a massive shelter with services along Hackett Road, several miles south of downtown Modesto in an outlying area where the county has its Sheriff’s Department, Community Services Agency and Public Safety Center instead of opening the 180-bed shelter.

While audience members said they were sympathetic to the homeless they also were frustrated with the negative impacts caused by some and wanted to make sure enforcement was not overlooked.

Officials said they agreed but said they are limited because of the state’s move in recent decades toward not institutionalizing the severally mentally ill, which means some of them now end up on the streets, and the state’s push in recent years of prison reform and initiatives passed by voters statewide a few years ago that have lessened the penalties for some drug and property crimes.

“I know it’s frustrating,” Police Chief Galen Carroll said. “It’s frustrating for me. ... I cannot believe that I’m at the point as a police chief, near the end of my career, that drugs are basically legal.”

Withrow said while it may not seem apparent progress is being made and he understood audience members’ frustration.

“We are living this, too,” he said. “I’m living it, too. My office (his CPA practice) is five blocks from here. We had to lock our door two days ago because there were people out in front that scared our staff. We’ve had all the vandalism, all the feces on our building, all the things you guys are talking about. ... But we are doing something about it.”