Why Modesto’s homeless tent city deserves praise

Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES) in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES) in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, March 5, 2019. aalfaro@modbee.com

The tent city established earlier this year by Modesto and Stanislaus County is getting some well-deserved, high-level attention.

Statewide leaders searching for solutions to homelessness are curious about our unique approach. So intrigued are they that they’re coming here Friday for the first-ever meeting of the governor’s Homeless and Supportive Housing Advisory Task Force.

“They’re coming because something’s going on here, things are happening here,” said Terry Withrow, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

Earlier this year, a collective gasp rippled through our community when the city and county first announced the idea. Could anyone possibly come up with a sadder cliché than sticking our homeless in a bunch of tents under a bridge?


The more we thought about it, the more it started to make some sense:

  • Crimes associated with the homeless had dropped dramatically after leaders began allowing homeless campers in Modesto’s Beard Brook Park, by simply directing them to one location. The then-proposed tent city — also known as MOES, short for Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter — would replace that temporary solution.
  • Other options had fizzled. In the space of a year, proposals for shelters on downtown land owned by Stanislaus Food Products, and at the old county-owned Scenic Hospital, drew opposition and were abandoned.
  • While far from ideal living, MOES still is better than living on the street. Some 300 uniform, donated tents provide shelter to about 400 people. Also available are portable bathrooms and wash stations, and nonprofits bring in food, while other agencies offer medical, mental health and rehousing services, all in a fenced environment watched over by security guards.

The Modesto Bee Editorial Board chose to applaud Modesto and Stanislaus County in March for easing some suffering with the tent city, however temporary.

The grand experiment has not proven perfect. A fire generated headlines, for example. City and county leaders still cross fingers every day, acknowledging the liability risk and praying that no great tragedy will occur before MOES closes by year’s end. That’s when campers will move indoors. Officials and the Salvation Army are preparing a 180-bed shelter, which could be expanded, at the army’s Berberian Center near downtown, and the city and county hope to help the Stanislaus Housing Authority turn the American Budget Inn at Highway 99 and Kansas Avenue into transitional housing for up to 200 homeless people.

Also, it’s obvious that not all homeless choose to take advantage of the tent city. It sleeps about 400, while Modesto alone has 1,400 homeless, according to the latest count. The county has 1,923 homeless, and 1,088 — more than half — have no shelter at all.

Homeless in Stanislaus County

  • 2019: 1,923
  • 2017: 1,661

Other cities and counties are even further behind. Take a drive around San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton — just about anywhere (including downtown Modesto) — and you’ll see campers in far more dire circumstances than the blue tents under our Ninth Street Bridge.

When Governor Gavin Newsom in May announced the creation of his task force on homelessness, he made it clear that he expected “solutions will come from the local level.” The state task force would take a close look at whatever mayors, city councils and county supervisors around California are doing that works, the governor said, and then report those best practices in hopes of helping others.

Newsom and the Legislature then earmarked $1 billion in the state budget to address the homeless epidemic, setting most aside to help cities and counties get people off streets using methods yet to be developed. A few days ago, the governor affirmed that the task force is among his top priorities, replacing a campaign promise to name a homelessness czar to his cabinet.

On this page in Friday’s newspaper, the task force’s co-chairmen — Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas — reiterated that they’re on the lookout for appropriate models. “We will compile and highlight best practices from around the state. We will listen. We will insist on regional approaches and solutions,” they wrote.

It’s an honor that the task force chose to meet here for its inaugural meeting. Modesto and Stanislaus County leaders have been directed to explain their outside-the-box approach when the task force gathers Friday at the Stanislaus Veterans Center on Oakdale Road in Modesto.

This isn’t the first look we’ve drawn.

Leaders from several agencies already have toured MOES, and Modesto and Stanislaus County regularly field email and phone inquiries. The Sacramento City Council recently dedicated an entire meeting to shelter proposals; they specifically brought up our tent city as something worth pursuing. The Sacramento Bee then did a lengthy report on MOES’ “safe ground model,” or creating areas where homeless people can live safely in tents or cars before transitioning to future shelters that agencies need more time to build or renovate.

“It seems like Modesto is taking a more constructive approach than many other jurisdictions,” Eric Tars, with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a telephone interview. His organization was among the plaintiffs in a Boise case producing a court decision a year ago, essentially clearing the way for homeless people to sleep in parks if there was no place else for them.

Make no mistake: Our homeless problem is ugly and distressing, and it’s not going away. But knowing that others even more desperate are looking to us for answers means that we are doing something right, and that’s worth acknowledging.