Mike Dunbar

Finding shelter for the homeless and from city-county controversy

One of the multi-layered tents that sprang up in Modesto’s Graceada Park after a federal court ruled cities couldn’t remove homeless campers from parks unless there was somewhere else for them to go.
One of the multi-layered tents that sprang up in Modesto’s Graceada Park after a federal court ruled cities couldn’t remove homeless campers from parks unless there was somewhere else for them to go. The Modesto Bee

It wasn’t so much that Stanislaus County and the city of Modesto weren’t on the same page concerning our community’s burgeoning homeless population, they weren’t even reading the same book.

The county had offered several locations for a temporary shelter, but each got a lukewarm reception from the city – along the lines of, “anywhere but there.”

Now it appears the city and county might have turned a page. The vacant gymnasium at the corner of Calaveras Street and Tuolumne Boulevard, west of Highway 99 has enough space to house perhaps 100 people. And it just might suit everyone.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help the city,” said County Supervisor Terry Withrow, who has been foundational in the county’s Focus on Prevention program. “If this turns out to be a better spot, and we can get in there quickly … we’ll do everything we can to support them.”

In April, Withrow, city councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer and former councilman Brad Hawn proposed a low-barrier shelter on downtown property owned by Stanislaus Foods. Saying it could be readied within months, they envisioned allowing homeless people to check in with their pets, possessions and partners to spend the night. Social service workers would be available to direct them to essential services.

Unfortunately, some members of the city council didn’t like the location, and soon enough neither did Stanislaus Foods. It was rejected over safety concerns.

Two months later, Withrow, Kenoyer and others floated the concept of using the old Scenic Hospital, which the county owns, as a low-barrier shelter. But protests from neighbors and two city councilmembers appeared to have stalled that plan, if not entirely derailed it.

With rainy season approaching, it appeared nothing might happen ... until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals provided a catalyst. It ruled in early September that the city of Boise, Idaho, could not make sleeping in parks illegal if there was no place else for homeless people to go. The decision didn’t apply just to Boise.

Within a week, tents were springing up in Modesto’s Graceada Park, among others, and people were sleeping on the stage of Mancini Bowl. This was not what the city envisioned for its showcase park. It was, however, ironic considering the county had tried to provide exactly the kind of space the court now required.

The city scrambled, and decided Beard Brook Park was the perfect spot to host, uh, campers. Within a few days, some 20 tents were pitched and 30 people were living in the park. Less than a month later, and that number has grown to 50 tents and 92 people.

But Beard Brook has never been ideal. Adjacent to the Tuolumne River Regional Park, it’s close enough to the E.&J. Gallo Winery’s administrative campus that executives can see campers out their windows.

Now, according to city councilman Mani Grewal, well-meaning people are bringing food and clothing to the park, giving it a feeling of unintended permanence.

If the new location works out, it will be because of the working relationship between the county’s executive office and the city manager’s office.

“Joe and Jody’s relationship is phenomenal and that’s been important in this,” said Grewal, referring to city manager Joe Lopez and county CEO Jody Hayes. They should work well together, considering their offices are no more than 200 feet apart.

“We just want to get a place,” said Withrow. “We’re got teams out there desperate to have places to send people other than that park.”

Mike Dunbar is Editorial Page Editor of The Modesto Bee.

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