Our View: Salvation Army, Modesto, Stanislaus County came together and got it right

Modesto homeless settling in at bridge camp

The Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter had about 350 residents as of Thursday.
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The Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter had about 350 residents as of Thursday.

From time to time, you hear strong opinions about separation of church and state, generally a good thing in the United States’ representative democracy.

Is it ever good to have a union of church and state?

It is, when the the Salvation Army joins with both Modesto City Hall and Stanislaus County government to address our homeless problem.

They’ve still got a long way to go — too many unfortunate souls remain in our streets, sidewalks and alleys. But hundreds are mostly safe and mostly dry in a new temporary camp under Modesto’s Ninth Street Bridge. Additionally, plans for 180 beds in a future shelter at Ninth and D streets are being finalized as you read this, a true milestone as reported by The Modesto Bee’s Kevin Valine.

Neither the camp nor the shelter would be happening without the combined efforts of a religious-based organization and two governments. And that effort, which should lead to material improvement in many lives, deserves some applause.

Actually, some improvement already is apparent, for the homeless and everyone else.

Homeless: Monday was the deadline for campers to leave small, flimsy tents in hilly Beard Brook Park. Its much better replacement, although also temporary, is an orderly camp with donated, comparatively spacious, 10-by-10-foot tents with some services that opened three weeks ago in Tuolumne River Regional Park. It’s a good bet they’ll be more comfortable there, although the camp is expected to close as well this summer. Several told Valine they appreciate the new set-up.

Everyone else: Crimes commonly associated with the homeless dropped dramatically when the city designated Beard Brook Park for homeless camping, effectively consolidating and somewhat containing that population. In January 2018 — before the tent city — Modesto police received 526 reports of what they call quality-of-life crimes. In January 2019, with more than 400 homeless bedding down in Beard Brook, there were 89 such calls — a stunning drop of 83 percent.

So yes, some good is coming from this church-state partnership, and more good is expected.

Things weren’t always going this smoothly. Not even a year ago, some city officials proposed a low-barrier shelter downtown on land owned by Stanislaus Food Products, but others didn’t like the location, and eventually Stanislaus Food didn’t either. Then county officials pitched the idea of turning the old county-owned Scenic Hospital into a shelter, but neighbors’ protests doomed it.

It’s curious that momentum seemed to pick up only after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opened the way for homeless people to sleep in parks if there was no place else for them. That effectively forced Modesto City Hall into action, leading to the Beard Brook tent city, although the city, county and Salvation Army had been laying plans to address the homeless problem for at least two years.

“It got a big (boost) when we all faced the reality of what was happening in our streets and alleys and communities,” said Patty Hill Thomas, the county’s chief operations officer. “But it wasn’t just a haphazard plan just thrown together. When you have a shared purpose, it’s amazing what you can do, and that’s what’s going on right now.”

Modesto, the county and its eight other cities still have much work to do, including finding ways to bring lots more transitional housing — a step above simple emergency shelter — as well as affordable housing for working families. But we’re finally seeing movement in the right direction.

“This is not going to fix the whole problem,” said Capt. Dwaine Breazeale, the army’s Stanislaus coordinator. “This is not going to end homelessness. But it’s the next rung in the ladder as we climb a stairway to success.”