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Vagrancy in Ceres less than elsewhere
• Police notice fewer problems with Modesto tent city
Homeless dude.jpg
Homelessness is not widespread in Ceres but occasionally manifests in displays like this young man who was shouting out obscenities Friday morning as he dealt with his belongs scattered on the walkway outside of the Hatch Road Carl’s Jr. Restaurant. Ceres Police typically respond to calls reporting behavior of vagrants and make them move along. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Ceres is the third largest city in Stanislaus County but, relative to population, it doesn’t have near the problem of homelessness as found in Modesto and Turlock.

A recent count of homeless persons in Stanislaus County revealed 1,200 in Modesto, 250 in Turlock and only 35 in Ceres. Those numbers could be low, admit city officials, but indicate of how out of balance the problem is among the cities. By contrast Turlock’s population is 73,556 and Ceres is 48,697.

The relatively low number of homeless in Ceres could be linked directly to the fact that there are no services for homeless to attract them. The close proximity of Ceres to Modesto – where the bulk of services for homeless persons are offered – is another explanation for the low numbers. The city of Modesto’s establishment of a homeless camp in Beard Brook Park not far from Ceres – which was moved to beneath the Ninth Street Bridge – could be drawing homeless persons out of Ceres. 

“It’s not as bad as it used to be after they started making a tent city over there,” noted Ceres Police Sgt. Jason Coley who is in charge of the city’s Code Enforcement Unit which cleans up homeless encampments. “We went significantly down in numbers, at least what I can tell.”

After collectively sharing concerns that offering shelter for the homeless would result as a magnet for more, in December the City Council voted 5-0 to oppose declaring a shelter emergency in Ceres to be eligible for some of the $7.2 million in Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) grants to tackle the homeless crisis in Stanislaus County. Stanislaus County and Modesto officials are planning to use HEAP funds to open a 180-bed shelter with services at the Salvation Army’s Berberian Center not far from the northern end of the Ninth Street Bridge.

Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith said homeless often make their way into Ceres to panhandle from shoppers, mostly along Hatch Road.

“We offer them no services to stay so they’ve got to be tied to that somewhere."
Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith

Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith said homeless often make their way into Ceres to panhandle from shoppers, mostly along Hatch Road.

“We offer them no services to stay so they’ve got to be tied to that somewhere,” said Chief Smith. “Depending on the weather we many have more of them because they can panhandle and camp if the weather is good. If the weather is bad – like it has been – you’re going to see less of them around.”

Smith believes most people who are homeless choose to be that way.

“They don’t want to make a change. Most people’s perception is opposite – they think they need help, we need to get off of the street. We talk to them and that’s what they want to do. It’s a very difficult situation. It’s unfortunately become a police problem and typically it’s not been a function of what a police officer does.”

He said there is an encampment of homeless persons along the Tuolumne River in the vicinity of the Modesto Airport. Occasionally some trespass onto the River Oaks Golf Course and cause problems. A number of businesses at Hatch and Mitchell have reported them tying up restrooms for paying customers, accosting customers for money and sometimes helping themselves to food without paying for it.

“I get calls of certain homeless people in the business areas causing problems so I get the officers to go out and find them and take care of it,” said Smith. “The police chief’s opinion is simple. Homeless people are citizens. Citizens have a responsibility to be responsible and regardless of whether you’re homeless or not, you don’t get a free pass. So if they’re out there doing something they’re not supposed to do regardless if they’re homeless or not we are going to make contact with them and do what we need to do.”

The city has had to expend resources of code enforcement officer time cleaning up homeless camps – including piles of feces, trash and discarded IV needles – in commercial areas and rights-of-way. Smith reported that Caltrans has been dealing with homeless living in the oleanders along Highway 99, including the area behind Hot Rod Diner and Denny’s. The state evicts them as squatters but Smith noted “they’ll just move down a block and hide under someplace else.”

The practice of sleeping near the freeway is a dangerous one. Last August a 33-year-old homeless woman sleeping in a cardboard box near Kansas Avenue was killed by a piece of Caltrans equipment clearing out the area.

Coley said that during the count of homeless persons, numbers turned up where they weren’t expected.

“We found one off of 99 in the oleanders on the east side of the freeway south of the Service Road overpass,” said Coley. “One bad wreck that goes into the oleanders and you’re dead.”

All over California, Caltrans is clearing as many as 40 camps each day along highways and underpasses, aiming to keep roads free of hazards and to clean up sites that can collect trash and hazardous waste. Caltrans spends $12 million annually on contracts to clear homeless camps – more than tripled since 2013.

Legislation passed in Sacramento coupled with the Boise decision handed down by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have tied the hands of local government to push the problem along. Last year three judges on the federal court decided that a Boise city ordinance banning sleeping outdoors is unconstitutional if the affected people have no other options available. 

Smith said Ceres parks have seen little homeless camping but that the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park has seen some problems.

“We’re getting more and more complaints about homeless and it’s hard because our hands are tied,” said Smith. “They know what we can do.”

In cases where homeless persons are found trespassing and camping on private property, Sgt. Coley said the department makes the owners take action. “Sometimes we’ll assist the owner with that.” 

While the county and city of Modesto plan to expand the Berberian Center at Ninth and D streets by 180 beds and introduce modular buildings to serve as a hub for services to the homeless, downtown business owners have expressed opposition. They say homeless persons hanging out in downtown routinely trash the area, scare off customers and urinate and defecate on their property. They will ask the county to house the homeless at the county’s Hackett Road facilities in Ceres. If the Berberian Center becomes a reality, officials want to close down the homeless camp under the Ninth Street Bridge, which is prone to flooding in winter months.

Homeless guys panhandler.jpg
The signal lights at the Hatch Road overpass off-ramp is a common place to find panhandlers – some of them homeless – begging for cash from motorists. - photo by Jeff Benziger