Jim Egan rested on a canvas tarp rolled out on the sidewalk Thursday in McClatchy Square. The duffel bag he uses to tote all of his earthly possessions sat on the adjacent rain-dampened grass, which is along I Street downtown.
He’s 24, homeless for all but one month since he was 18. He’s held only side jobs in recent years – yard cleanup and whatnot – but told me he taught himself to repair cellular phones.
“I just learned it on my own by doing it,” he said.
Meanwhile, several blocks and seemingly a world away, about 500 people met in the climate-controlled Modesto Centre Plaza to discuss homelessness in Modesto and other cities in Stanislaus County in an event called the Finding Our Way Summit on Homelessness. They represented a mix of people from government agencies, law enforcement, private businesses, nonprofits, education and philanthropy.
They listened to the stories of seven people who are rebuilding their lives after enduring homelessness, drug addiction, sexual assault and other problems. The common denominator among the seven: Each came upon people who wanted to help, and to help them believe in themselves again. Some cried as they spoke. Some in the crowd teared up as they listened.
They spent the day getting educated about the problem encompassing – or encompassed by – homelessness. They pledged to work together to try to prevent more folks from having to live on the streets, and to assist others in getting into housing, job-training programs and available services during the meeting promoted as the Focus on Prevention in Stanislaus County.
Homelessness and all that can go with it – poverty, addiction, mental health and personal health issues, crime and antisocial behaviors – aren’t going to be fixed in a single meeting. No one in the room believes that, which is why the program is a 10-year plan designed to reduce the number of people who are homeless and how long people stay homeless and to provide resources to help at-risk people from becoming homeless.
Thursday’s meeting was a motivational event aimed to engage as many people as possible to help attack the problem because it affects communities on so many fronts.
I observed the morning session and it was, indeed, uplifting. In fact, it was sort of like a wedding – one of those emotional yet orchestrated occasions that soon give way to the day-to-day realities of marriage, which takes unquestioned love and unending commitment to last and flourish. Making an impact on homelessness will take both, along with a mix of tough love, expectations and understanding, and it still won’t eliminate the problem.
“No community has found the perfect solution to homelessness,” event moderator and consultant John Ott said.
A multitude of factors turns dealing with homelessness into a moving target, speakers acknowledged. The economic downtown and foreclosure rates beginning in 2008 changed the landscape, Ott said. A 60-member action council has been assembling information for the past several months to better understand the scope of the problem here.
“People who never thought they’d be homeless found themselves homeless,” he said.
Homeless numbers can change with the seasons and the weather. Homelessness affects children far more than anyone previously understood. It has been affected, law enforcement officials say, by the realignment that forces counties to release jail inmates to make room for those considered greater risks to public safety. And each homeless person has a unique combination of factors that range from financial misfortune to family problems to mental illnesses to drug addiction and more.
Some homeless have longtime roots here, while others come here, a Modesto police officer told me, because it is safer and less expensive to be homeless here than it is in San Francisco or other big cities. Still, they’re homeless. They are present up and down I Street and throughout the downtown. They find shelter in parks, along the river, under bridges and wherever they can, and it has been that way for decades.
So this effort to address homelessness in the Valley is both admirable and absolutely necessary. It’s also going to be, as the old saying goes, like herding cats. Some homeless want to stay off the radar and will not accept help beyond meals. Others are open to help in the form of transitional housing, substance abuse treatment, job skills training and health care services, said Egan, from his seat at McClatchy Park.
“Sure, they would,” he said. “I just want to have a roof over my head. I want to get a certificate for computer programming.”
In the same park, 40-year-old Bradley Cooper is back out on the street. He’s been homeless off and on for the past five years. Having no home address makes it difficult to get hired, he said.
“I need help with housing and I need help with a job,” Cooper said. “I’m a forklift driver and I can’t find work. ... I need to get my foot in the door.”
With any luck, and like the seven who told their stories at the homelessness summit, these gents will meet up with people who will help them get their lives back on track, too.