Ken Carlson

County Pulse: More homeless shelters are part of plan for Focus on Prevention

In launching an initiative this year to reduce the impact of homelessness, Stanislaus County leaders stressed that government won’t solve the problem.

The action council for the county’s Focus on Prevention homeless initiative has come up with potential strategies that would require a substantial commitment from government and nonprofit partners in the community.

A four-page outline released this week calls for expanding homeless shelters and building new ones, as well as providing more transitional housing for people with mental illness and other homeless who want to get off the streets.

The ideas include shelters open 24 hours a day, with relaxed policies to accommodate homeless people with pets.

The list of strategies, which is nowhere near final and more of a wish list, is not a silver-bullet approach to curing homelessness. The outline includes services and supports such as a day center for connecting people with assistance, shower facilities, public toilets, better transportation, and improved health care and mental health services.

Besides helping the chronically homeless, the council wants to target a much larger population – estimated at close to 20,000 – that is on the verge of being homeless, including people boarding with friends and families doubled up in homes. Communities would develop interventions to keep individuals or families from losing housing, and provide help for those who have just become homeless.

Businesses and employers would be engaged to increase employment opportunities for the homeless and adults coming out of jails. A county welfare-to-work program for the homeless could be developed.

Other strategies would decrease the use of parks for feeding and interactions with the homeless, move charitable food events to private property, and take back parks and walking trails for the general public. Action plans could be developed to deal with street people who are committing crimes or preying on others.

Ruben Imperial, a county staff member assigned to Focus on Prevention, said the council realizes that government funding would be needed to build more local shelters.

The action council approved the potential strategies at its meeting Wednesday, but the proposals need to be further developed and prioritized. Many of the strategies have been used in cities across the country, Imperial said.

Early next year, the council is expected to make recommendations to a stewardship council made up of representatives from different sectors in the community. The stewardship panel will decide what is the best course moving forward.

Proposals to build more shelters could stir debate in a county where homelessness has been a hot-button issue. That debate has included input from homeless advocates, business owners and neighborhood associations that feel overrun by the homeless.

Nick Bavaro has an insurance business not far from the Modesto library, one of the gathering places for homeless. He said any additional shelter space would need to come with restrictions.

“I see homeless people and the problems they create every day, and it is frustrating to have to deal with that,” he said. “You can’t just build a shelter and open it to whomever wants to come there. You will have people from all over the West Coast coming to Modesto because they can get food and shelter.”

Bavaro said he agrees services are needed to assist the mentally ill, as well as people who lost their jobs or can’t get hired because of nonserious criminal records. But he wants to see authorities get tougher with drug addicts and alcoholics who have no desire to work their way off the streets.

The recent city election served as a reminder that a Modesto blue ribbon panel pored over homelessness issues in 2011. David Wright, who ran in District 6 in east Modesto, was chairman of the blue ribbon panel and criticized city leaders for ignoring the panel’s advice to establish day centers for the homeless.

District 6 voters elected Doug Ridenour, who serves on the homeless action council for Focus on Prevention. District 6 includes residents in the La Loma area, some of whom opposed a 2011 application from the Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard for a 20-bed short-term shelter for men in a rehab program and a permit to legalize a 15-bed shelter for fathers with children.

Ridenour said the action council is trying to come up with solutions, and the newest proposals are still being analyzed. The councilman-elect said he would need to consider the details and location before supporting a plan for additional shelters.

Imperial said the action council sees coordination of services as one way to make an immediate impact without going to great expense. Focus on Prevention also will get different sectors of the community involved with projects to prevent people from becoming homeless and help those who want to change their lives.

The county’s prevention initiative also will work on strengthening families, providing hope for disadvantaged youth and reducing jail recidivism.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321