Keeping the homeless dry must be highest priority for Modesto, Stanislaus County

A homeless man named Marian is pictured near some Christmas decorations he put in a tree on Monday morning Dec. 3 at Beard Brook Park.
A homeless man named Marian is pictured near some Christmas decorations he put in a tree on Monday morning Dec. 3 at Beard Brook Park. jlee@modbee.com

“A Christmas Carol” is one of the most hopeful and inspiring books in the English language. Charles Dickens wrote it in 1850s England, a time of great wealth and greater poverty. There’s a scene in which Ebenezer Scrooge is transported to a spot beneath a bridge, home to a family of four.

It’s hard not to recall that scene as we consider what Stanislaus County and the city of Modesto are proposing for several hundred homeless people – including children.

Tuesday, Stanislaus County will be asked to approve agreements to create and fund a temporary – and we emphasize that word, temporary – homeless camp in Tuolumne River Regional Park. The Tuolumne River Regional Park Commission approved the concept Monday, and the city of Modesto will be advised in its regular meeting.

The camp will be beneath the Ninth Street bridge, a few hundred yards west of where roughly 425 people are currently camping – with the city’s blessing – in Beard Brook Park.

Set aside the grim image, and realize the bridge will keep most (not all) of the homeless dry. There is enough room to set up temporary (that word again) facilities to help those willing to accept it. Hauling in (and out) food, portable toilets and other necessities will be easier.

Still … under a bridge?

Every city and county across California has a homelessness issue. We’re no different. Hundreds have been living on our streets, camping along the river, occasionally finding beds in a shelter and living hand-to-mouth. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Nor does hiding them.

Though they’ll be camping under a bridge, the regional park cannot be the last stop. It’s envisioned as a bright green jewel for both Modesto and Ceres. It already hosts soccer games on its lawns, nature walks along the river and more. That’s why the word temporary is so important.

“Moving these people around solves nothing,” said Stanislaus Supervisor Terry Withrow, who has devoted nearly four years to finding a solution to homelessness. “We need to identify the root causes in each case and figure out a way to get them back into society … We can’t keep moving these people around. It’s not a game of musical chairs.

“This buys us some time.”

In September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled cities could no longer order homeless campers out of parks unless they had somewhere else for them to go. That ruling forced the hands of Modesto and virtually every other California city.

The city decided the homeless could sleep in Beard Brook Park. Within weeks dozens, then hundreds were sleeping in a tent city. Two weeks ago, after rains turned “Beard Brook Village” into a muddy mess, the problems became obvious.

“What this has done is taken the issue from our back yards to our front yards,” said Rick Armendariz, assistant chief of police.

It has also shown us the value of community, as County CEO Jody Hayes put it. Since Beard Brook Village has been open, “man down” calls for assistance to the homeless in Modesto have fallen by a third. Nuisance calls have fallen by a comparable amount.

Still, camping in the park can be only a temporary solution. Modesto and the county must find better solutions – including some that have already been proposed. We applaud plans to work with the Salvation Army to double shelter beds. The Gospel Mission has provide shelter and food for 50 years. And there is no good reason some of the homeless can’t be housed in the mostly vacant, county-owned Scenic Hospital – especially those most intent on turning around their lives.

Now, as in Dickens’ time, sleeping under a bridge is a last resort. But it will give many better access to services, a dry tent and even occasional meals. For now, that’s enough.

The city council board of supervisors should embrace this plan and do whatever necessary to make it happen. And then to make it better.