If this storm lives up to its billing, it will be the most egregious weather behavior we’ve encountered in Northern California since 2008.
If you’ve heeded the warnings, you’re well stocked with candles, batteries, food and bottled water, ready to ride out the storm should the power go out. In essence, you could find yourself camping at home. But for thousands of other people in Stanislaus County, camping is an everyday occurrence. They are homeless, and will be looking for places to get out of the rain, wind and find a hot meal, just as some of them did six years ago. And many didn’t. There simply weren’t enough beds in the shelters to handle more than a fraction of those who are living on the streets.
Nor are there now, according to those who monitor housing or run the shelters.
“That would be the goal,” said Michele Gonzales of the Stanislaus County Housing Authority. But the funding simply isn’t available, she said.
When the county conducted its annual homeless survey in January, there were roughly 820 beds available for homeless people, with 203 of them being seasonal only. The single-day head count accounted for 1,156 homeless people. Of those, 713 were staying in emergency or transitional shelters, meaning 443 were on the streets. But realistically, for every homeless person counted, two more probably weren’t.
“It’s hard to get a real accurate figure,” said Brian Aird, business coordinator of The Salvation Army in Modesto. “Some of them don’t want to be counted.”
That means there could be perhaps 3,400 homeless in the county, while the number of available beds remains at 820 or so.
The Salvation Army has added roughly 60 seasonal beds over the past few years to the Berberian Homeless and Transition Center on South Ninth Street, bringing its total to roughly 160.
Likewise, the Modesto Gospel Mission has 100 beds for men and 53 for women and children, which represents an increase since 2008. Also, the mission is now a Red Cross emergency shelter, meaning it can stow the chairs from the chapel and put up cots instead for overnight stays.
And Turlock Gospel Mission offered no facilities whatsoever in 2008. Now, its day center draws 40 to 60 people who can stay for the evening meal before finding a bed at one of the local churches or at the men-only We Care, also in Turlock. It has 49 beds.
Many among the homeless are really good about staying below the radar and avoiding any kind of organization. They live on the streets, weather or not, by choice.
Prison realignment and Proposition 47 led to the release of many who otherwise would be in jail, and some no doubt are living on the streets. Some of them want no part of shelters or anything that resembles structure.
“It’s always surprising to me, the people who will camp out downtown rather than go to a shelter,” Aird said. “We’ve increased our bed capacity, we’ve made significant upgrades and opened up our meal services and are doing what we can. Yet you’ll still see people in doorways. I don’t understand why people aren’t taking advantage of what’s available.”
Some do, spending their days in libraries and other public places where they have the legal right to be. But when those establishments close for the day, those homeless go back outside into the elements.
Some, Modesto Gospel Mission Executive Director Kevin Carroll said, aren’t fond of rules that require guests to attend church services in order to receive meals or lodging. The chapel attendance is required for overnight stays, Carroll said, because the services throughout the years have started many people on the road to changing their lives and lifestyles.
The Turlock Gospel Mission’s day shelter is generally full, Executive Director Tim Guerino said. But his people work hard at going to the parks and places where the homeless hang out in an effort to convince them their time is better spent indoors when the weather turns cold or stormy.
“It’s very difficult to build relationships, to build trust,” Guerino said. “We’re trying to build bridges to get them to come in. We purposely go out to get them.”
But when there are only so many beds, many of those who want to come in out of the rain and cold will still find themselves outside as the biggest storm in six years pounds the Valley.