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County supervisors receive report on homeless
Homeless camp turlock
The homeless problem in Stanislaus County is spilling over into public and private areas in every city and town, including commercial parking lots in Ceres and, as seen here, along Golden State Boulevard in Turlock. The county has spent over $30 million on the problem. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Stanislaus County officials gave supervisors an update earlier this month on the effectiveness of over $32 million worth of programs over a two-year period to combat homelessness. While some gains have been made, at least one supervisor decried the effort as a waste of time and money.

District 5 Supervisor Jim DeMartini said he remains unimpressed about the results after spending millions in federal, state and county tax dollars.

“I always felt that the law enforcement is what’s lacking here in allowing these … bums and vagrants are just allowed to terrorize the community,” said DeMartini.

He cited how empty lots are being encroached upon by people in “trailers and junk motor homes” – mentioning one lot undergoing foreclosure in Grayson – where homeless are causing crime and problems.

“If you want to do something for them you need to go down and just get them out of there or throw them in jail because they’re just vagrants. They’re squatting on property there and creating problems. I’m just unimpressed by this whole thing. We spent $30 million last year on this and I see very little in the way of results.”

As in Grayson, a proliferation of homeless persons living in cars, trailers and mobile homes have set up camp along Golden State Boulevard between Tuolumne and Fulkerth roads in Turlock. Ceres has also experienced persons living in RVs and cars in parking lots and is in the progress of outlawing such practices on private property.

Supervisors were updated on the county’s three areas of focus and outcomes reporting related to homelessness: Shelter and housing; programs and services; and accountability.

Supervisor Terry Withrow complimented the county’s effort, saying it “leads the state.”

“I just can’t imagine, if we hadn’t been doing this what this place would look like,” said Withrow. “I know it’s not perfect. We spend a lot of money. It’s a tough row to how here. But I want to commend all of you for your efforts in what you’ve done. And I just say if we had done nothing … this place would look like a lot of other counties do now and ours doesn’t look like that.”

“You can’t say we aren’t doing anything,” said Supevisor Vito Chiesa, who spoke about consistency. “I just see a lot of progress. Again, it’s very expensive. I know the population is tired of seeing people move from the city of Modesto into the Caltrans and then into the railroad right-of-way and then back into Caltrans. It sounds like there’s progress being made.”

Since the board declared on Dec. 11, 2018 that there is a local homeless crisis, the county has established a non-stop center to help empower the homeless or those at risk of being homeless to lead a hopeful and independent life.

A point-in-time count of homeless in January indicated that there are 2,107 homeless people, including 207 children, in the county but numbers could be higher.

“Prior to COVID-19, this was the single topic that took a significant portion of leadership time and strategic direction of the organization as well as many of our conversations in this board room,” said county CEO Jody Hayes. He said the county was able to partner with agencies to build programs despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Hayes said while the greatest focus initially was to provide homeless people shelter from the elements, it became apparent that “building more shelters is not going to resolve our homeless challenge – there are many, many aspects to it. If we are successful, we will actually be able to reduce the number of shelter beds in our community.”

The county, he noted, found the need to focus on mental health, substance abuse and finding jobs for the homeless.

Holding individuals accountable for their crimes and failing to participate in programs available, is also important, Hayes stressed.

“We are very open and transparent with the fact that we do believe that we need standards in our community,” said Hayed. “We need to uphold the laws in our community. We need to support law enforcement interventions to maintain a basic standard of living in Stanislaus County. That’s becoming more and more challenging … but we’re not giving up on that.”

Kathy Harwell, director of the county’s Community Services Agency, gave an overview of the county’s efforts. She said the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES) served 747 persons from Feb. 1, 2019 until it was closed in October 2019. Of the 747, 52 persons found housing elsewhere on their own. When the MOES – a camp of temporary tents underneath the Ninth Street Bridge – was dismantled, outreach workers and case managers spent months to relocate the homeless. Many who were unable to find shelter were moved to the nearby Access Center Emergency Shelter (ACES), a 182-bed shelter on Ninth Street in Modesto which opened in November 2019 under agreement with the Salvation Army. Since opening ACES has served 264 persons since its opening. A total of 125 were able to leave MOES after securing other housing. 

“The opening of ACES also afforded an opportunity for the most vulnerable unsheltered population to be sheltered and connected with case management services, with a strong emphasis on assisting shelter guests to become document ready for entry into the community’s coordinated entry housing continuum,” a staff report to the supervisors read.

Included in ACES is a 22-bed dorm area for the homelessness suffering from significant mental illness. This dorm-style room reduces chances for victimization and increases the efficacy of therapeutic intervention. The Community Assessment Response and Engagement (CARE) Multidisciplinary Team is also able to use the location to provide case management and shelter to the most vulnerable unsheltered individuals.

Since opening, about 13 individuals have found permanent living situations elsewhere and 24 have found transitional or temporary housing. These numbers do not reflect additional individuals that were relocated to the At-Risk Shelter at the Modesto Hotel and then exited to permanent living situations.

In addition to the ACES center, the county has served 47 families at the Empire Cold Weather Family Shelter initiated in late 2018 as a partnership with the Stanislaus Regional Housing Authority. Located at the Empire Migrant Center, at 5132 South Ave., the facility serves families being case managed in the Community Service Agency’s (CSA) Housing Support Program (HSP) unit. Typically they are families which are still searching for permanent housing after having used all available temporary shelter nights. The center helps families understand better money management and its effect on housing options, complete housing applications and educate how to approach landlords. During its first year, the center served 22 families with 87 percent placed in permanent housing; 29 percent engaging with increased employment; and 52 percent finding ways to increase income. During the program’s second year, a total of 23 families were served with 92 percent finding permanent housin and half increasing household income.

The county also provides shelter for smaller-sized homeless families through a five-year lease with the 21-unit Rodeway Inn at 1128 S. Ninth Street near Ceres. The county started using the site in November 2019, modeling the program after the Empire shelter. During the 2019-20 year, a total of 46 families were served at the Family Housing Facility with 57 percent eventually finding housing elsewhere; 37 percent of the families increased engagement with employers; and 45 percent increased their income.

The county and cities have been working with local housing and shelter providers to address the lack of affordable housing.

In September 2019, there were a total of 649 beds and 239 units for shelter, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing in various stages of construction countywide. Since that time, 533 beds and 171 units have been completed. They include:

• Kansas House, a motel converted into 103 units to provide what the county calls “second-stop housing.” It was developed by the Stanislaus Regional Housing Authority, in partnership with the county and Modesto. The facility offers ongoing case management for persons referred by different county programs.

The Housing Authority paid $2.8 million for the motel with renovations at $5.2 million.

The report issued on Dec. 1 touched on the Downtown Streets Team, a low-barrier workforce training program for 35 homeless men and women. In exchange for picking up trash and debris participants earn a basic needs stipend that can be used for food, phone service, medication, and other essentials. Due to the COVID pandemic, the operation was halted between March 13 and June 8 with limited in-person and virtual support still being provided to members. To date, the team has supported 105 people, of which 28 have secured permanent housing and 21 have found jobs.

In February, the Access Center, a “hub location” for multiple homeless programs and the entry way into the shelter system, opened at 912 D Street in Modesto. The Access Center serves as a one-stop hub and physical entry point for individuals at-risk of or currently experiencing homelessness to access a wide range of services including centralized homeless outreach and engagement; housing assessments and navigation; and homelessness support services and referrals.

Outreach workers from the Access Center go out to meet homeless people on the street and in camps to encourage them to seek out services.

From February through Sept. 30, the Housing Assessment Team at the center has served approximately 3,892 individuals. Assistance includes help with obtaining IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates; applying for CalFresh benefits for food and basic needs and Medi-Cal benefits; transportation; connecting to mental health services and substance abuse treatment; and connecting to job training and case management through the Downtown Streets Team.

The board also heard about the need to enforce trespassing and vagrancy laws. Modesto city and county officials have prepared a Memorandum of Understanding to be considered by all law enforcement agencies which will allow for mutual enforcement within county islands and within 1,000 feet inside a city limit boundaries.

Despite the governors’ executive orders that have restricted the disruption of homeless encampments on state property due to COVID-19, Caltrans has granted multiple exceptions to remove encampments due to concerns related to pedestrian fatalities. To date, Modesto and CalTrans have cleaned two large encampments and are working on other locations.

Complicating the enforcement of trespassing is the requirement that police agencies obtain an Authorization to Arrest form – called 602 letters – from public agencies and businesses to allow officers to remove or arrest individuals in  county island areas, such as along canal banks, railroad tracks and on other private properties. To streamline the process, the Modesto has created a universal 602 letter for owners of properties to allow Modesto Police one 602 letter that covers all areas owned by one business or public agency that have appropriate signage. This allows the Modesto Police Department the ability to enforce the areas listed in the 602 letter for a year before the owner must resubmit a new 602 letter.

Supervisor Chiesa expressed dismay over the need to have 602 letters for police to eradicate homeless camps.