TURLOCK — With homemade signs and heart-shaped buttons, more than 150 people gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday night to protest next week's closing of the cold weather emergency homeless shelter.
Earlier this month, Vice Mayor Kurt Vander Weide, Councilmen Ted Howze and Kurt Spycher voted against extending the B Street shelter in downtown by 30 days, citing reasons of political ideology and the weather. The shelter's last night will be Monday.
Homeless people, homeless service providers such as shelter employees, and college students made up the bulk of the protesters. Signs ranged from "April is the Wettest Month of the Year" to "Build a Permanent Shelter" to one homeless man who carried a cardboard box with black magic marker on the side that read, "Without a Shelter This Box Represents My Home."
"We live in the wealthiest country on the planet," said Steven Filling, an accounting professor at California State University, Stanislaus. "We routinely pay $60,000 a year to keep a single person in prison. It costs a lot less than $60,000 to keep the shelter open another month. So I have a big problem with the economic efficiency of criminalizing homelessness."
The university's Sociology Club and Hunger Network brought several students, and a handful of churches were represented.
"The homeless don't have a voice, so we want to be that voice for them," said Sociology Club president Ally Bronner, holding a sign with three friends.
The shelter, which is funded with city redevelopment money, opened Nov. 20 and serves to keep homeless people protected during the valley's coldest and wettest months. The council had considered opening the shelter early, on Nov. 1, but decided not to because, according to Councilman Spycher, it wasn't cold enough. Spycher echoed that comment earlier this month when homeless supporters asked for the April extension.
It costs $207,000 to keep it open from November through April. From December through March, it's $161,000.
Tuesday, Spycher said he's being "consistent with prior years." The shelter was open through April last year, but not in the 2005-06 season or for two years when it was at Zion Worship Center, near Highway 99.
The Salvation Army in Modesto runs its cold weather shelter through April; the Modesto Gospel Mission runs year-round. Merced's emergency shelter, run through Sierra Presbyterian Church, stays open until the middle of April.
The regular Tuesday night City Council meeting didn't have anything homeless-related on the agenda, but with more than 20 people addressing the shelter closure during public comments, the issue dominated the night. The city was prepared for the crowd -- overflow seating was set up.
"You see all these people here supporting us," said a homeless woman, Donna Lofton, waving her hand across the standing-room-only crowd. "Could they all be wrong?"
Turlock resident Mary Jackson, who ran for City Council and lost in 2006, quoted Police Chief Gary Hampton, who said a shelter reduces nuisance calls to the department and minimizes expensive emergency room visits that can be a financial burden for hospitals.
Closing the shelter, Jackson said, "is not a fiscally conservative position. It is fiscally irresponsible."
Many called for the council to reconsider the extension and to reopen the B Street shelter next year. A majority of the council has publicly said they won't approve the shelter at all next season.
Mayor John Lazar said the council could not take action Tuesday, because the homeless issue was not on the meeting agenda. During a period reserved for council comments, the council was silent.
Before the meeting, asked if he'd reconsider keeping the shelter open through April, Spycher refused to comment. After the meeting, Howze said he'll never vote to reopen B Street. He will support a permanent shelter in a different location, he said.
Vice Mayor Vander Weide, who has said the city shouldn't be in the shelter business, was on vacation.
Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2391.