Turlock police and the city attorney recently launched programs designed to engage the homeless and offer them an alternative to prosecution if they are willing to accept help.
It’s a model other cities could consider if it is successful, but versions of it are already being done around Stanislaus County. Law enforcement, clinicians and groups of regular citizens understand the importance of meeting the homeless where they are.
The Modesto police force’s Crime Reduction Team as well as officers assigned to the downtown area are regularly contacting the homeless. All patrol officers carry pamphlets to hand out with a list of the services available locally for finding food, clothing, shelter, and recovery and mental health services.
Downtown patrol Sgt. Gary Crawford is one who often seeks out the homeless.
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He responded to a call recently of a transient man whose pants were falling down at the transit center. Instead of arresting him for indecent exposure, he took him to Crescent Supply on Eighth Street, where he bought him a belt and a hat to shield his weathered face from the sun. The store donated a shirt.
On every shift, Crawford talks to homeless, most of whom he knows by name. He asks where they plan to sleep and encourages them to go to the shelter. If they have history of mental illness, he asks if they’d like to get respite care.
Crawford treats them with compassion and respect, but he also has no problem arresting those who are causing trouble.
“If I can get them long-term help, hooked up with some kind of services, it solves everyone’s problem,” he said. “It solves ours, theirs and the businesses. The quality of life for the people who are using those businesses, that is the ultimate goal. If they are unwilling to do those things and they want to keep coming back to the same area, whether it is drinking alcohol, urinating, defecating on the property and stuff like that, then we are going to jail.”
“My own personal rule is they get a warning the first time I meet them, they get a ticket the second time, and I take them to jail every time after that,” he said.
John Goulart, senior deputy city attorney for Modesto, also has a system that helps those who are showing a good effort to change their lives and stay out of trouble.
An average of 20 to 30 new quality-of-life cases come to him each week for violations like illegal camping, drinking in public and panhandling, but he’s had as many as 70 cases some weeks. Most of the defendants don’t show, and their cases will drag on until they are arrested on warrants and usually along with a more serious crime that will keep them incarcerated longer.
“My goal is if people show up, to resolve the case,” Goulart said.
If they show and have no previous record, he will put the case over for 60 days. If the defendant doesn’t get any new violations, Goulart will dismiss the case.
If the defendant is charged again, he will seek a conviction for an infraction with an order that the defendant be on probation for 12 months, which includes a stay-away order from the place where the defendant was causing problems.
After that, Goulart said, he will charge the city code violations as misdemeanors, which can result in jail time.
He said Turlock’s new diversion program is something to consider for Modesto, but “we need to see what their results are and whether it would be viable with the much larger homeless population we have in Modesto.”
Goulart said he is skeptical that many homeless would agree to participate in community service, which is one of the alternatives to prosecution in Turlock’s Diversion Program.
“They don’t show up for their court cases,” he said. “Many are substance abusers. Some have physical disabilities. Others have mental health issues. So, there are a lot of challenges to get this population into community service, I would think.”
Sometimes jail is the best option for repeat offenders. It temporarily, at least, takes them away from the businesses where they make a mess and harass customers, or from the parks where they use drugs and alcohol, driving away families and children.
In the jail, transient inmates are given information about services before they are released, and those who have mental illnesses are seen by a psychologist and given medication before they are released.
Mental health deputy Jeff Graham recently helped an inmate get into a rehabilitation program in Stockton. The man was a repeat drug offender who had been in and out of jail for more than a decade and was continually contacted by Modesto police at Enslen and Graceada parks.
During his last stint in jail, he was told about the program. He’s been offered similar services countless times in the past, but this time, after being released from serving time for a probation violation, he returned to the jail and asked the deputy if he’d get him into the program.
“After a lot of work on Jeff’s part and communication with Stockton, he was evaluated by their facility and accepted into their program,” said Lt. Mike Dailey. “As a statistic, one person being placed may not look like much, but this was a good one. Maybe it will work.”
Law enforcement is sometimes the most common – and sometimes the only – human contact for the homeless. But citizens in neighborhood associations and watch groups next month will start training to learn how to engage the homeless, too. The effort is one of many ideas generated by Focus on Prevention, which was launched last year to reduce the homeless population.
Some of the members of the effort were formerly homeless and said it took a person showing an interest in them, coming to see them day after day and earning their trust, to accept the help available to them.
Those who are doing the work know their efforts are an uphill battle.
Crawford has had some successes he is proud of. He brought children and families back to Cesar Chavez Park on Fourth Street by busting one transient who was the draw for all the rest there. Crawford discovered that Alfred Morris had been convicted of dealing marijuana out of his campsite and got him banned from the park for three years. Morris stays away from the park, but Crawford still finds him in various locations throughout downtown Modesto.
Crawford has helped four people get off the streets by connecting them with services. He keeps a list of about a dozen people whom he most often comes into contact with and tries to get them help. Some of them die before he gets that chance.
“I have been doing it for three years … and every time one of them dies, I cross them off my list,” Crawford said. “They die out here on the street. They die because of alcoholism … drug overdoses, stuff like that. I show the others when someone dies. I’ve crossed off 12 people in three years. It’s sad.”