Community Columns

A few suggestions for helping the unhoused in Modesto and Stanislaus County

By Steven J. Graham

It is 110 degrees outside. Sweat is slowly creeping down the back of my leg. I am happy to be home where I can quickly jump in the shower. Most living in the Central Valley can relate to this, but what if I did not have a home?

Stanislaus County has roughly 1,923 people without permanent housing. Every summer day, these individuals feel the searing Valley heat. The enormity of this situation requires your tax dollars. This year alone, California has dedicated billions to this fight. With so much taxpayer money focused on this predicament, why is it not solved?

The term homeless carries a lot of negative connotations. Many people believe the homeless are criminals, drug addicts or mentally ill, and some are. However, the rising cost of living, underemployment, and lack of good-paying jobs also contribute.

It is time to look at this problem differently. To begin, the term “homeless” is neither accurate nor compassionate. Viewing this as a difference between housed and unhoused captures a more precise picture. “Unhoused” not only encompasses those living on the street but individuals who reside in vehicles or move around to friends and family.

The department of Housing and Urban Development requires cities seeking funding to conduct point-in-time surveys. Such investigations are done to document how many unhoused live in a community. That funding is vital.

Presently, 400 of Stanislaus County’s 1,923 unhoused reside in the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter. MOES is helpful but far from perfect. There is trash, crime, and even a recent death. Despite these flaws, MOES performs valuable community service.

But MOES is closing. To replace it, the county is converting an old Salvation Army warehouse into a new shelter. Despite all the resources government is putting into this issue, 1,088 could remain unhoused.

Some say, “Jail ‘em and throw away the key.” This thinking is wrong-headed and illegal. A recent court case affects how governance deals with their unhoused population. Martin V. Boise, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, states that individuals may sleep outside if there are not enough beds. Further, the court notes that arresting or citing a person without available alternatives is cruel and unusual punishment, and reminds us that being unhoused is not a crime.

Failure to create space for the remaining 1,088 unhoused means that garbage and human feces will continue to be a feature of the town, and not an attractive or healthy one. Some would say, based on the recent court decision, that we do not have a choice. But we do have an opportunity. We can decide to do better as a community. We can choose to have a healthier, cleaner place for all to live.

How do we accomplish this? By working as a community.

Retailers can be a part of the solution by establishing “buy one, donate one.” For example, the point-in-time survey notes there are around 50 unhoused who could benefit from school supplies; purchase one notebook, and another is donated. It works for folders, pens, and pencils. This strategy also works for holidays and everyday supplies. It requires no additional tax dollars, and it may increase tax revenue if Modestans are generous with donations.

Other elements of the community are encouraged to help as well. Religious institutions can open their doors on hot evenings when parishioners do not meet. The unhoused could sleep on pews or floors, and get out of the heat for a while. Health clubs could open showers to the unhoused in a limited capacity.

You and I can help, too. Make a simple language change. Volunteer. Donate money to an unhoused organization. The truth is, we can all contribute to creating a more desirable Modesto for everyone.

Steve Graham, a Merced resident and Maddy Institute fellow, graduated from San Joaquin College of Law and is completing a master of public administration degree at California State University, Stanislaus. He can be reached at sgraham456@outlook.com.

Editor’s note: Stanislaus County is working on multiple projects that would add hundreds of beds for homeless people in coming months.

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