Study finds homelessness divides city

TURLOCK -- Everybody agrees the city needs a permanent homeless shelter, but that's never going to happen if people on all sides of the issue remain at odds with each other.

A study by the Center For Public Policy Studies, commissioned last year and released Friday, shows that homelessness costs the community at least $4 million a year. The report recommends a "modest" permanent shelter "surrounded with services, programs and aid" and removed from downtown.

Discussions of homelessness reached a boiling point last spring when downtown businesses and clergy mobilized against city plans for a $2.9 million permanent shelter on B Street -- just a few blocks from City Hall. City officials stalled the plans, redirecting much of the dedicated fed-eral money, and hired the public policy arm of California State University, Stanislaus, to conduct a $70,000 study of commu-nity opinion on homelessness.

The study recommends creation of a "grass-roots action committee" to design a plan aimed at getting people off the streets and into homes. But in order for that to happen -- and to get a successful shelter off the ground -- all interested parties need to work together, the report reads. The city, according to the report, should not take the lead.

The 137-page document paints a dark picture of Turlock's opinion of the homeless and homelessness, saying:

  • "There is a great deal of mistrust, skepticism, anger and frustration."
  • Many homeless service providers "do not work together."
  • "People felt that there were different 'camps' or sides on this issue and that they were often being pegged by others."

Professors Kelvin Jasek-Rysdahl and John Garcia, who spearheaded the report, said that portrait represents attitudes discovered early in the yearlong process -- shortly after the Carnegie Arts Center was burned down when debate over a downtown shelter was at a peak. A transient pleaded no contest to arson and second-degree burglary in July.

Still, that underlying attitude "is very serious and if ignored it will undermine this process," Garcia said.

Information precariously sparse

Nearly all participants agreed some kind of shelter is needed and everyone said services are paramount. The report out- lines the difference between a permanent, placement-oriented shelter and emergency shelter.

An emergency shelter acts as a stopgap, whereas a permanent shelter would include programs to break the cycle of homelessness, according to the report.

"Too many people have prejudged the effectiveness of a permanent shelter based on the experience of the emergency shelter," said City Manager Tim Kerr. "They're totally different. The only commonality is the homeless."

Jasek-Rysdahl and Garcia interviewed 45 people, including police, city staff, homeless service providers, church leaders and business owners. Four research groups were established: business owners and residents; homeless; faith-based and service providers; and city staff. Each group met upward of 25 times over 11 months.

The groups looked at issues related to a homeless shelter, strategies addressing them and the city's role in the process. Information on homeless in Turlock is sparse, the report found. Part of the grass-roots committee's charge is to design a way to better record and communicate homeless information.

The faith-based and homeless services research group set out to better understand their clients. Through We Care Shelter data -- the city's cold weather shelter -- semiannual, one-day homeless count figures and fresh interviews, the group put a face on homelessness. They are predominantly single, relatively young men (31 to 50 years old) with criminal histories, no job and no family or friend support systems, but they have roots in Turlock.

The business group looked at the cost of homelessness and came up with some staggering figures. Property loss because of fire attributed to homeless or vagrants -- the difference being vagrants don't stay in the same place very long -- was a staggering $2.6 million in 2004; $5.7 million in 2005; and $3.9 million in 2006, according to Turlock Fire Department figures.

"The study shows the problem is not going away and it's extremely costly," said Joe Bonander, co-owner of Youngdale's Appliances in downtown, who worked with the business group.

"It's costly for the hospital, for people who aren't homeless and need medical assistance right away, for those who want to use the parks, to safe schools. ... The college did a good job of bringing up the issues."

Not enough people showed up

The business group also surveyed nearly 200 Turlock businesses and found concerns and costs related to homelessness are higher in the downtown area where homeless services are located.

The homeless research group set out to look at the community's view on homelessness. It argued that the lack of available avenues out of homelessness promoted a community feeling of contempt -- that the system, or lack thereof, reinforced negative associations. The group set out to conduct six community meetings, and perhaps the most meaningful data gathered are that not enough people showed up to produce meaningful data.

He hopes the council accepts it

The homeless group advocated a "housing first" approach that's endorsed throughout the report -- an end to shelter-and-food style services that only keep people warm and fed, and a shift to programs and services that work to move people into homes.

Mick Matthews, a homeless man featured in a January series in The Bee, was part of the homeless research group. He's been called the spokesman for Turlock's homeless community, even "the homeless John Lazar (Turlock's mayor)."

"I was happy with what all the groups came up with," Matthews said Friday. "All the people in all the groups per- severed and worked diligently to come up with the recommendations. I really hope the City Council accepts it."

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.