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City adopts plans to deal with larger homeless camps
Homeless camp near Penske
An example of a perpetual homeless camp along the railroad tracks in Ceres. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Even though Ceres doesn’t have homeless encampments of what’s considered “significant” at 10 or more individuals, the Ceres City Council took a step Monday evening to adopt procedure guidelines in dealing with homeless problems as outlined in the countywide Stanislaus Community Response Guidelines (SCRG).

Ceres City Manager Tom Westbrook said that the protocol would be beneficial and necessary “someday and are a resource the city can use.”

Unlike its neighbors Modesto and Turlock, Ceres is without services and shelters for the homeless, said Westbrook, “therefore, having access through the SCRG is a benefit to the Ceres community.”

In a landmark court case, Martin v. the City of Boise, the courts determined that governments cannot force homeless persons or groups from the public right of way if no other option for shelter was available to them. Westbrook noted that while homelessness has long been an issue, “the court case appears to have emboldened homeless individuals to shelter in more visible public areas, such as park and rights-of-way.” He noted that some of the homeless form small camps which have proliferated throughout Stanislaus County and present health and safety concerns with no restrooms or garbage containers.

In an effort to help those living in squalor camps find services and shelter, a multi-jurisdictional approach was developed and endorsed by the Stanislaus Homeless Alliance (SHA) for a consistent approach to handle homeless encampments.

Based on the guidelines, the deployment of a multi-agency response would be utilized in the following situations if:

• There is a gathering of 10 or more homeless persons where any of these conditions exist: gathering on a regular basis; constructing temporary shelters; collecting, storing, or have abandoned personal and/or other types of property; camping in an area which clearly is not meant for human habitation; and gathering in unlawful locations such as within the public right-of-way, parks, county facilities, and state and federal jurisdiction lines.

• There is an immediate hazard to life and limb, such as along highways, railways, waterways, roadways and driving lanes; where criminal activity beyond illegal substance abuse occurs; where it is difficult to extend emergency services to the site; where camps obstruct work scheduled at the site; damage is occurring to the natural environment of environmentally critical areas; garbage or debris is accumulating in excessive quantity; and homeless are too close to schools, youth-serving community centers or facilities for the elderly.

If a camp is determined to be “significant,” the city would reach out to the Community Service Agency’s Housing and Homeless Division to engage its Outreach and Engagement Team. The encampment will be contacted with an offer of services and alternate housing if available. Resource materials and hygiene kits will be distributed while law enforcement will provide a “Notice to Vacate.” After a specified time outlined in the notice, the city will remove garbage and debris.

“I know that the cities of Waterford, Hughson, Oakdale I believe, the county and Modesto have already signed onto these and the other cities are considering them,” said Westbrook.

The local agency is to develop a plan to discourage the re-establishment of encampments, such as posting signs and routinely patrol.

Councilwoman Linda Ryno said she didn’t see any benefit in getting homeless encampments eradicated any quicker under the new protocol because the city will still be using Ceres police, code enforcement and public works to deal with the issue. She expressed fears that the city would be providing services to the homeless.

“That concerns me because I think when you start providing services, more of them come because they get free stuff,” said Ryno. She cited the problem in Turlock where they let large gatherings “get out of control.”

She also said that typically there are beds available in homeless shelters in Modesto “and the homeless don’t want to go to them.”

Councilman Bret Silveira had a different take.

“I don’t see anywhere in this … that we would be expected to have any more services for homeless than we have already,” said Silveira. “Fortunately encampments aren’t a huge problem for us. I believe what this does is gives us the ability to have the county and the people involved in this program come in and help these people relocate … and get back on their feet.”

He called it a “no brainer to be a part of this.”

Ryno cast the lone vote against participating. Supporting the measure was Mayor Javier Lopez, Silveira and Vice Mayor Channce Condit.

Those who are homeless in Stanislaus County may call the Access Center for personal, no-fee assistance with housing and other services. The Access Center is located at 912 D Street in Modesto and open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and may be reached at (209) 272-8800.

The Access Center provides a physical entry point with multiple co-located partners to centralize connections to housing, treatment services, and benefits and help to navigate the wide range of services that are available throughout the county. The Access Center has a unique “Meet you where you are” strategy to remove barriers, build trust, and establish relationships with individuals who are homeless in Stanislaus County.