Modesto lays out its efforts to combat homelessness. Here’s what residents say is missing

The presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting on everything Modesto and its partners are doing to deal with the homelessness crisis was exhaustive. It included a roughly 47-minute presentation, complete with 74 PowerPoint slides, followed by more than an hour of discussion.

The city is working diligently to provide services, facilitate the building of more housing and hold people accountable who don’t follow the rules. The presentation included everything but actual homeless people to talk about their experiences.

And it appears there is one thing the city is not willing to do: set up designated sites with minimal services where people who decline to use shelters and other services can sleep instead of in city parks, shopping centers and alleys.

Police Chief Brandon Gillespie said based on his research of cities across the country that provide safe camping sites, he had “yet to find a city that reduced their homeless population and really helped people exit homelessness” through doing so.

Gillespie was responding to Councilman Nick Bavaro’s question of whether the city would consider a pilot program for authorized camping sites and if not, why not.

Gillespie said the sites attract homeless people from out of the area and generate complaints and calls for service. He added that safe camping is contrary to the city’s focus of connecting people to services and getting them out of homelessness.

He acknowledged that can be difficult but said the Police Department’s park ranger and community health and assistance team programs have shown great promise in doing that, despite being in their infancy.

Downtown is a campground

When it was time for the public to address the City Council, several residents called for safe camping.

“Regarding Chief Gillespie’s recognition that some of those safe camping options have not been successful, I’ve seen those figures as well,” resident Derek Castle said.

But he offered another perspective.

“It’s not a matter of, ‘Should we have a campground in Modesto?’ Downtown and Graceada are campgrounds,” said Castle, who lives near the park. “... Neighbors and park users of Graceada and Enslen (Park, which is nearby) have just had enough. It’s just so bad for them. They are really tired of it.”

Residents prepare to leave Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, the closing day of the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter next to and beneath the Ninth Street bridge.
Residents prepare to leave Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, the closing day of the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter next to and beneath the Ninth Street bridge.

Gillespie said the city’s Modesto Outdoors Emergency Shelter — the tent city that housed about 400 people a few years ago — drew 1,100 complaints during the roughly one year it was open. But safe camping advocates say that MOES was too big to be managed and that designated camping sites need to be much smaller.

Castle said safe camping will draw complaints but Modesto can address them by looking at what other cities have done. He added it is better those problems are at a designated area rather than what is happening now with residents complaining about camping in their parks and in other public spaces.

Many members of the public thanked Modesto for its efforts to address homelessness. But they said these efforts take time and there is a desperate need to immediately provide safe camping or tiny homes for people who live on the streets, especially the elderly.

City efforts include some microhomes

Some of the projects the city highlighted Tuesday included:

The City Council on Tuesday approved spending nearly $570,000 in one-time federal funding for The Salvation Army to operate a homeless day center at its Berberian Center campus near downtown. People could take showers, get their clothes washed, get something to eat, charge their cell phones, receive case management and other assistance to help them get off the streets.

The nearly $570,000 includes about $270,000 in one-time costs. The city estimates it will cost $300,000 annually to operate the center and will look for partners to help it continue the center beyond its initial year. City officials say the day center will give people who are homeless an alternative to hanging out in parks and the groups that feed people in parks could feed them at the day center.

The city also mentioned a project to build nine microhomes on the grounds of an Orangeburg Avenue church. Construction should start in about a month at the Modesto Free Will Baptist Church, said Kevin Smith, housing director for Stanislaus Equity Partners, one of the project’s partners, in a Wednesday interview.

Smith said the homes will be permanent housing with services for families at risk of homelessness. He said the goal is for families to receive the help they need to reach the next step in their lives, such as renting an apartment. He said the Center for Human Services and Family Promise will provide the services.

He said the church will own the homes. He said they range from 400 to 800 square feet and should provide housing for 18 to 30 people. He said Stanislaus Equity Partners is involved in similar project with The Bridge Covenant Church in Riverbank for eight microhomes for single moms. He said construction should start in about a month.