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Council needs to help save downtown

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POSTED March 7, 2017 12:32 a.m.

Take a walk on the wild side. Go to some spots in the 200 block of West Yosmeite Avenue or even in neighborhoods where long-time vacant structures are breeding grounds for vagrancy.
We will soon be celebrating the second anniversary of the homeless bonfire that gutted the Sycamore Arms boarding house at Sycamore and Yosmeite avenues after the owner was forced to close it down and board it up after gang members and drug users got the upper hand.
How long will this stay as a cancerous blight on downtown serving as a magnet for the homeless and drug users?
Across the way is the old Bucktooth Billiards. It’s been vacant for more than six years. In the past month or so the homeless have decided they are going to take it over given the current climate in California  allows them to break and enter and trash other people’s property with virtual impunity.
The rules of engagement have changed in favor of vandals and vagrants. Blame it on people voting to decriminalize certain crimes or substantially weakening the consequences for committing them. Blame it on clearing out the prisons of non-violent criminals. Blame it on whatever you want.
The bottom line is Manteca now appears defenseless against vandals and vagrants that break into vacant buildings and trash them with little or no fear of anything other than a slap on the wrist.
But is Manteca really defenseless against vandals and vagrants or is City Hall not equipped with the right tools and given precise direction from elected leaders?
Manteca needs to adopt a version of Los Angeles’ fairly successful Citywide Nuisance Abatement Program (CNAP). One of the things that the program does is abate “vacant structures, open to unauthorized entry, which are sites of drug, gang, or other criminal activity or which are fire damaged.”
Let’s be real clear here. The problems of long-term vacant buildings or fire damaged structures that are boarded up are no longer just the problem of the property owners. They pose a serious threat to public health, safety, and welfare.
Nowhere else is this a more pressing issue in Manteca than the 100 and 200 blocks of West Yosmeite Avenue.
Homeless as well as the dregs of society are attracted there due to the “crash pads” that boarded up structures have become.
Talk to the merchants and businesses that clean up the overnight evidence of debauchery and such. They make sure you don’t see the human excrement, smell the urine or run across needles. They make sure downtown is a safe and pleasant place for their customers.
But that changes when the stores are closed.
There are individuals that have been homeless for years who have never had to squat in a downtown doorway. They use park restrooms and other bathrooms. In fact, with some of them when you meet them on the street you’d be hard pressed to tell they are homeless from their appearance and dress. 
What has happened is the conservation about the homeless is myopic. There are bigger issues of drug abuse and anti-social behavior. And while there are homeless that fall into that category there are others some call “daytime homeless” who wonder the streets during the day to look for a place to do their next score. Sometimes they go “home”, sometimes they stay out on a multiple day binge.
Families and the law are unable to do much. Courts and state laws make it clear such druggies have free will if they are adults. The Manteca Police community resource officer effort is making some headway. But the city needs to step up its game a notch and take away options for riffraff.
One place to start is with long-term vacant buildings and those that sustain fire damage and remain untouched for more than a year.
If these crash pads aren’t taken away by either putting the space to productive use or tearing them down, Manteca will eventually pay a heavy price.
It could be in a form of a fire. The 100 and 200 blocks of West Yosemite have buildings abutting each other approaching a century of age that do not have modern firewalls. The Sycamore Arms has already burned. The homeless started fires in the used car lot office at Lincoln and Yosemite, three buildings on Moffat and the old Sunnyvalley Meat operation. Sooner or later the unthinkable will happen.
It could be in the form of a missed opportunity. How long can the merchants in the 100 and 200 blocks of West Yosemite keep fighting the good fight trying to get traction to pump up the economic well-being and appeal of the historic downtown?
Elected leaders need to take a hard look at what they can do if they are serious about downtown. It may not have to go as far as putting in place and exercising abatement authority. The tool, however, should be sharpened and made ready if it is ultimately needed.
It could be a more proactive measure by having the city’s economic specialist work almost like a leasing agent in partnership with property owners to help secure the right businesses to fill vacant spots.
As things stand now, the city is just playing cops and vagrants either citing or catching, jailing and the county releasing. It’s time to make sure the sounds of nails being pounded are to breathe new life into downtown and not the daily ritual of replacing boards over broken windows and busted doors that are kicked in on a nightly basis.

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