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Grand jury homeless report gets city response
Hatch homeless tweaker
A young homeless man outside of the Carl’s Jr. on Hatch Road. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

The city of Ceres has responded to a June report by the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury on ways to reduce homelessness.

The purpose of the report, titled, “Homelessness: The Elusive Definition of ‘Success,’” is to raise awareness of the scope and magnitude of homelessness and how the community can tackle the problem.

Ceres city staff reviewed the report and its findings and prepared a response. The city was required to respond to the report within 90 days.

The city agreed with three of the six findings of the grand jury:

• That the numbers of homeless persons in Stanislaus County fluctuates from year to year but are increasing. COVID-19 exacerbated the incidence of homelessness. The report noted that the county had 1,613 homeless persons in 2005 and an estimated 2,900 last year.

• The chief reasons for homelessness are substance abuse and mental health issues and the lack of affordable housing. Other factors are unemployment, poverty and domestic abuse.

• Efforts to better coordinate the system of care are underway. These include the Stanislaus Homeless Alliance at the policy level, and the Homeless Management Information System at the operational level.

The civil grand jury said it identified dozens of public agencies, private organizations and non-profit organizations tackling the problem of homelessness but also said “it is hard to evaluate coordination, effectiveness and accountability when efforts are so fragmented.”

The panel also noted that while over $30 million has been allocated to address homelessness in the past three years, the lack of accountability is “problematic and can undermine the public’s confidence in our public agencies.”

City management said it is not familiar with the statistics cited in this finding: “Since over half of the homeless each year are in the care system for the first time, efforts to prevent homelessness have not been successful enough. Without greater prevention success, homelessness cannot be reduced.”

City staff also said it didn’t have sufficient information to agree with two more findings, that:

• Despite enormous funding for homeless programs, and despite many individual successes, the system has failed to reduce homelessness.

• There is insufficient accountability for the effective use of homeless funds. While many agencies are accountable to their funding sources, primary responsibility for measuring accountability and effectiveness rests with the Community Services Agency, the Community Care System of Care, and the Stanislaus Homeless Alliance.

The grand jury believes that there needs to be more accountability in the system. The Community System of Care, the Stanislaus Homeless Alliance, and the Community Services Agency should take the lead, demand verifiable performance, and focus funding and other resources on those agencies and organizations with demonstrable success. This should be done by jointly adopting a performance evaluation system prior to the allocation of the next round of federal homeless funding.

The grand jury believes that if cities have the funds, priority should be given by cities to allocate funds for affordable housing, substance abuse treatment and mental health services. To that, the city of Ceres responded: “The City agrees with this recommendation but funding decisions should be left to individual jurisdictions and their governing bodies.”

Ceres city officials also agreed with the report that recommended that all cities should continually be encouraging the construction of significantly more affordable housing. The city is in the process of updating the Housing Element of the General Plan and pledged to “work to meet the goals and policies contained in the Housing Element.”

The city also agreed with the recommendation that “all cities should report annually to the Community System of Care and Stanislaus Homeless Alliance on the steps they have taken to help produce more affordable housing.” While the city provides annual reports to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) regarding local efforts to implement the Housing Element, if requested will provide the same report to the Community System of Care and the Stanislaus Homeless Alliance. 

Councilman Jim Casey said he is concerned that the city isn’t doing enough.

“I think that we really need to take into consideration not only the council but the staff,” said Casey, “we really do have issue with homeless people, not just those who push the shopping carts full of everything. But as I read a couple of months ago we have 400 or 500 that are identified in our school system that are homeless or nearly homeless.”

He said the city of Ceres doesn’t have “anything going on” for homeless persons.

Councilman Mike Kline agreed with Casey and that the council needs to have dialogue on what programs to undertake.

“I think we need to have a longer discussion and be truthfully honest about what’s going on in the city of Ceres,” said Ceres Mayor Javier Lopez. “There is some resources out there. I know that our police department does help out veterans, if I’m correct.”

Kline noted that the city councils in Modesto, Oakdale and Patterson have taken active approaches while Turlock is in the process.

“It’s about time that we stepped up and we address the issue as a council and move forward with this,” said Kline.

Even though Ceres is the third largest city in the county, the 29 homeless persons counted in the most recent Point in Time survey was far less than Turlock, which is the second largest city, which has 232. Oakdale has 36, Patterson, 78, and Modesto, 1,592. Ceres’ low numbers are probably due to its close proximity to Modesto across the river where more services are available.

The grand jury report noted that among the homeless identified in the 2020 Point-in-Time count:

• 18% had mental health issues;

• 19% suffered from substance abuse;

• 7% were victims of domestic violence;

• Over 5% were unaccompanied youth;

• Over 60% had been in jail, prison, or juvenile detention;

• 25% spent time in a treatment center;

• 12% had been in foster care.