Bee Investigator

Turlock city attorney offers diversion program to homeless

Police Officer Tony Argueta lifts a tarp Saturday to talk to a homeless man as part of the Community Outreach Response and Engagement (CORE) effort in Turlock.
Police Officer Tony Argueta lifts a tarp Saturday to talk to a homeless man as part of the Community Outreach Response and Engagement (CORE) effort in Turlock. jwestberg@modbee.com

Unlawful public camping, possessing a shopping cart and public consumption of alcohol. These are the top city code violations here, and the vast majority of them are committed by the homeless.

The offenses are infractions, or misdemeanors at best, with maximum penalties that include fines they cannot afford or six months in jail, of which they realistically will serve just a few days.

They are minor in the grand scheme of things, but for the business owner whose customers are being driven away or the parent who’s afraid to take her child to the park, they are major quality-of-life issues.

Traditional penalties in some cases are the only way to have any kind of an impact on the offender, but the solution is short term.

The Turlock Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office each recently implemented programs that offer alternatives and attempt to address the problem at its root by getting the homeless population connected to services.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton’s diversion program offers offenders of city code violations an alternative to the court process through a partnership with the Turlock Gospel Mission.

First-time offenders can have their cases dismissed by completing 16 hours of community service and committing no further violations for six consecutive months.

The community service is supervised by mission staff and includes doing cleanup and yard work downtown and in city parks, graffiti abatement and help with the mission’s newsletter.

“These are skills that can transfer to a job,” Norton said.

If the offender gets additional violations, he or she still is eligible for diversion but must perform 32 hours of community service, meet with a case manager at the mission and not re-offend for one year.

“The goal in connecting an individual to case management is to connect them to services that individuals need,” Norton said. That could be drug or alcohol addiction treatment, GED or diploma programs, job training or access to transitional housing.

About 15 people have completed or are going through the diversion program.

Included on the citations are notices that the recipients could be eligible for the program, along with information about how to contact the City Attorney’s Office.

If the recipient doesn’t contact the office or go to court, Norton will send a list of people who have bench warrants to the Gospel Mission, where a case manager will notify them of the warrant and tell them about their options through the diversion program.

From April to February, 175 people committed 311 of the “quality-of-life”-type violations common among the homeless. The majority, 106, committed only one violation, while 36 committed two violations and 22 committed three. The rest, 11, had four or more violations, including one who racked up 10 and another 13.

Norton began tracking violations a few months before she started offering diversion and the Turlock Police Department deployed two teams to engage the homeless and come up with long-term solutions to chronic problems.

The Community Outreach Response and Engagement (CORE) team replaced the department’s gang unit, which disbanded in 2012.

The unit addresses everything from gang issues and emerging crime trends to quality-of-life issues associated with the homeless, said Lt Joey Mercado.

A sergeant and two officers on the team have been trained in crisis intervention and soon will learn crime prevention techniques based on altering an environment.

For example, officers can discourage squatting in the alcove of a business not just by citing the offender but by adding light or a security door or removing benches they sleep on.

The other unit, the Homeless Engagement Multidisciplinary Team, focuses on all homeless but particularly those who are mentally ill or have drug or alcohol problems.

Mercado said the officers are trained to engage the homeless, start a dialogue and ideally get them into programs that will lead to a more productive life.

For 12 hours each month, they get help from mental health clinicians who ride out with each of the unit’s three officers, through an agreement with the Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

“The goal is not to hook and book, it is to meet and offer services,” Mercado said. But that won’t stop officers from arresting people with warrants or on new charges if they aren’t changing their behavior.

The ideas aren’t entirely new to Stanislaus County. Mercado was part of a coalition that started a similar program, called the Habitual Transient Offender Program, in 2006 when he was a bicycle officer in downtown Modesto.

It was started under the premise that it is more expensive to keep drug addicts and the mentally ill on the street than it is to get them help when you consider the cost to house them in jail or at a secure mental health facility, or to get them medical care.

Mercado remembers one man the coalition studied who had cost taxpayers nearly $407,000 in just three years.

It costs $99.41 a day to house an inmate in Stanislaus County’s jails.

Mercado, who started his career in Turlock, was recruited back there in 2008 to establish the city’s own Habitual Transient Offender Program. But it was suspended in 2010 as a result of the recession.

When Mercado was given the green light to revamp the program five year later, an element was missing: the ability for officers and clinicians to get to these habitual offenders in jail when they had a few days to get sober and to hold them accountable with jail sentences if they continue to offend.

Beginning in 2011, California prison realignment shifted incarceration of nonviolent felony offenders to local jails, which had to adjust to the influx by releasing their own lower-level offenders early, sharply reducing the misdemeanor offender population.

Also, Proposition 47 reduced a number of felony drug and property crimes to misdemeanors.

“Absent any unusual circumstances, most misdemeanor arrests for quality-of-life issues or city ordinance code violations will be cited out with a court date,” said Sheriff Adam Christianson. He said transient inmates are also given referrals to services, medically evaluated and given any psychiatric medication they might need before they are released.

“The jail can’t hold them anymore,” Mercado said. “That was the biggest leverage that we used to have but don’t anymore, so we really stepped up our engagement.”

Mercado said Turlock officers keep lists of their repeat offenders and seek them out on the streets to continuously offer them help connecting to services. If they refuse the help and participate in the same nuisance behavior, Norton will talk to them about the diversion program.

For those who refuse, jail is an option. Many of these offenders aren’t just illegally camping and and stealing shopping carts; they have charges by the District Attorney’s Office that involve drugs, fighting and burglary. Even if a sentence isn’t as substantial as it was in the past, Norton can request as a term of probation that the defendant stay away from the area where he is being a nuisance.

Mercado said he is aware that most will refuse services and many will die on the streets. He said he’s lucky if one in 20 of the homeless whom officers approach on the streets agree to take advantage of the services. But he said the effort is worthwhile.

Norton hopes to expand the diversion program, offering health care and animal care for the homeless who don’t want to leave the streets for fear of losing their pets.

“We will take a holistic approach to give them other options,” Norton said. “We never know when we will touch an individual, when that is going to be the time they will change.”

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