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It’s a different world when the sun goes down

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Manteca’s night riders seen on bicycles in the wee hours of the morning are often homeless.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED February 4, 2014 1:58 a.m.

“Mary” pushed a stroller.

If you passed by her, during any respectable hour of the day, she’d fit right in line, lockstep, with the image that Manteca’s “Family City” moniker is meant to portray.

But the only problem was “Mary” wasn’t pushing this stroller during any respectable hour. It was 1 o’clock on a Sunday morning. The stroller was absent a toddler or a newborn and instead full of something that at least for the time being was much more valuable.


Well, cans and bottles to be fair. Entire bags filled the breadbasket of the stroller with a wide array of recyclables.

You know how they say that a child is the “pride and joy” of a beaming mother? Well these cans are the “pride and joy” of “Mary.” It represented hours of trudging her stroller with her male companion back and forth along Manteca’s arterial routes and back alleys.

That’s because this cargo is worth money. And work.

Hard, risky work.

Less than 25 yards from where “Mary” had parked her stroller – next to a dumpster behind Wells Fargo on Main Street – the blaring blue light of police units lit up everything in the immediate area.

A fight at the nearby MRPS Hall had brought the Manteca Police. And unfortunately for the two homeless people that had crept up to the honey hole down a back alley, the chance  increased that they’d get caught doing something that attracts attention.

It was quick pickings.

Grab a can. Look towards the lights. Grab another can. Look towards the lights.

While one could argue that nobody would miss the cans and bottles already discarded into a dumpster behind a local bank, “Mary” says that it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game with cops who are arduously tasked with keeping private property clear while also treating everybody they come across with dignity and respect. The city also receives money for the recyclables that people place in blue Toters, which, in turn, help keep garbage bills from increasing.

“Sometimes they’ll tell you to move along, and sometimes they’ll make you throw all of your cans away,” she said. “You’re always looking over your shoulder. When you’re out looking for recyclables – especially in the blue cans – you’ll get arrested if you get caught. You have to be careful.”

The night people

Popular country music singer Kenny Chesney has a famous track about when “The Sun Goes Down” that talks about the fun-loving party lifestyle you’d expect to find in Key West or Myrtle Beach.

But in Manteca, it has a completely different connotation.

One of the primary effects of methamphetamine is an explosion of energy, and with the drug’s popularity and availability – not to mention its manufacture – in the heart of the Central Valley it’s easy to see why it would be directly linked with all of the ills that any society has to offer.

People who don’t sleep stay up all night. And people who stay up all night are bound to steal your stereo.

While it’s not necessarily a fair comparison to everybody that lives on the street, a quick jaunt down Moffat Boulevard at any early-morning hour will give you a perspective of this whole “stay up” concept and how widespread it actually is.

The Sleepy Hollow Mobile Home Park, which was at one time technically condemned, is abuzz with activity at 2 a.m. regardless of the day of the week. Bicycle riders fly up and down the street.

People like Chris Davis, who says he tries to stay away from “dope,” know that the perception among residents is that he and people like him are the ones responsible for the crumbling of modern society.

“People see you and they go right by. Sometimes they won’t even look at you,” he said. “I’ve done my fair share of dirt. I’m not saying I’m the cleanest guy out there. But we’re not all out here stealing either.”

Manteca has taken a relatively hard stance when it comes to dealing with the homeless. Standing in islands and panhandling is outlawed. The ban on drinking in parks is enforced, although not as much as some people may like. And the onetime burgeoning population that made Library Park their home – sometimes even camping out – has been forced to find other places to spend their time.

Daytime hours can be spent at any one of a number of places. But when the sun goes down it’s a scramble to find a place that’s relatively safe  from the elements, safe from those who might want what you have and those that might want to move you from the spot that you’ve found. And the homeless population can be pretty ingenious.

Several years ago, Manteca Police discovered an encampment in a field that was built up in a corner and camouflaged so as to go undetected during the day. While crude by normal standards, the inside was a virtual condominium complete with rooms and a cooking space and a heater. It was deemed unsafe as the elements used could easily spark a fire and was torn down and disposed of by city crews. It showed how far people are willing to go to make sure that they have a roof over their head – even if it is a patchwork roof of plywood covered in a tarp and then dirt and dead brush.

But sometimes you’ll take anything that you can get.

A helping hand

By and large, Manteca has always had a strong contingent of churches and groups that are willing to help the down-and-out.

Homeless families, if they’re lucky, can land a spot at the HOPE Family Shelter on West Yosemite Avenue. Homeless single mothers can turn to the Raymus House, the shelter’s sibling on South Union Road.

But if you’re a homeless male, the options are pretty limited. Because of the perceived gamble in handling these high-risk individuals, any effort to pursue a shelter that would cater specifically to that contingent has fallen flat. Drug problems. Fighting. Mental illness. They’re all associated with a class of people largely overlooked by society. It is a group that often fails to take advantage of programs that are available.

Every year San Joaquin County’s Human Services Agency comes to Library Park for a “homeless count” in an effort to gauge how widespread the problem actually is. It’s not simply a census. People like Steve Parsons from Love In The Name of Christ are there to serve up hot meals, and County Advocate Dennis Buettner makes sure that literature outlining available options is widely available.

It’s sparsely attended, however. People are hesitant – some downright hostile – about the effort. Others just don’t hear about it. And those that do show up find that getting signed up for the available services is often a hassle involving taking buses to Stockton and waiting.

People like Jack Dansby say they’ve thought about it, but are afraid of messing up the opportunity.

“I’m used to this now. I wasn’t always, but I am now,” he said. “I can go to the library and use the computer, but people stare at you. They move away from you. Sometimes you just want to be with your own people.”

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