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Homeless use Library Park as gathering spot

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POSTED March 8, 2013 1:43 a.m.

Tom Becker is homeless.

He works hard to find places on the outskirts of town where he can bed down for the night without getting hassled. Becker says it’s important to make sure he leaves no trace when he leaves in the morning  to make sure his camp spot doesn’t  get noticed. Having a reliable place to sleep is about as close as you can get to gold when you don’t have anywhere else to go.

And daytime is a chance to go to work. Not in the traditional sense – instead focusing on finding cans and bottles that he can turn into cash. He tries to be mindful of laws and city ordinances and tends to stay away from illegal practice of “blue canning” – the practice of digging through the recycling bins that residents put out with their garbage – because it attracts attention and attention brings the police.

In his off-time he periodically stops in at the gazebo in Library Park – a popular hangout for Manteca’s homeless.

So when he heard that the City of Manteca was going to be taking a closer look at those who gather in the area during the day after parents complained that they were afraid for their safety, Becker took notice.

It wasn’t that he was concerned about the complaints. There are those out there, he said, that give others just trying to get through the day a bad name.

But the park also serves as ground zero for the outreach efforts by local non-profit organizations, churches and even San Joaquin County workers that try to offer a helping hand to those that are willing to accept it.

“I just walked back from Weston Ranch – went to Stockton and got my food card today,” he said. “But where are all of those people who come down there going to go if the police kick everybody out during the day? That’s the one place they know they can find people.”

The battle over what to do with Library Park isn’t a new one. When the City of Manteca committed more than $1 million to expand the park and add an interactive water feature six years ago, it wasn’t terribly uncommon to find a hypodermic needle in a trash can or a group drinking out of brown bags in one corner of the park.

Outreach efforts to help the homeless, however, aren’t exactly easy undertakings since the target audience is usually spread throughout the community. That’s why Library Park – wide-open and centrally located – serves as the perfect spot to serve up meals, pass out clothes and go over the paperwork associated with the some of the programs offered in the area, according to volunteers and officials.

One local outreach worker, who asked not to be named because he didn’t have permission to speak to the press, said that Library Park was a place that he knew not only would the people he was meeting with would feel comfortable at, but also served a place where he felt safe during the meeting.

“It’s not like we can just walk into a McDonald’s or a Burger King or a place like that,” he said. “There are issues that need to be addressed – the drinking and the alcohol and the problems are all legitimate points. But taking it away altogether – a lot of groups lose out on the chance to meet people that need the help.

“It’s a double-edged sword.”

Manteca City Councilman John Harris – who said he remembers going down to Library Park back when it housed a baseball diamond and served as the main meeting point in the community – said he spotted one of those church outreach groups the other morning when he was walking by the park.

Raised nearby, Harris knows the area intimately and was part of the Manteca City Council crew that put together the $1 million package to expand the park in order to make it more family friendly.

Seeing some of the things that he’s seen, and hearing some of the complaints that he’s heard, has cast a pallor on what he hoped the park would have been.

“We put a lot of money into it and hoped that it would have been a gathering place,” Harris said. “And some that are gathering there are doing things that others don’t approve of.

“We’ve had our police department keep a lid on it, but you can’t have a police officer on every corner.”

Asked whether just removing the negative element from the area and allowing the homeless to still congregate so they can stay in touch with groups, Harris was quick to reply.

“They keep coming back – they always keep coming back,” he said. “Way back when we had a hobo jungle on Moffatt Boulevard near the Carl’s Jr. warehouse, and you just didn’t see them downtown. But somebody chased them out of there.

“It’s like when you push a balloon – it just pops up in another place.”

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