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Homeless drawn to Manteca
Word of generous community gets around to panhandlers
Motel 6 DSC 7838 LT
A homeless man sleeps on a foam mattress near the Motel 6 along Northwoods Drive within a block of the Yosemite Avenue and Highway 99 interchange. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Less than a half of a mile from downtown Stockton is that city’s answer to the homeless dilemma.

As you pass under the Crosstown Freeway braced with concrete pillars each stenciled with warnings that it is illegal to camp, you run out of fingers to count the homeless that have set up tents or improvised shelters beneath Highway 4 while throwing their clothes over the edge of the Caltrans right-of-way fence apparently to dry. One even has an American flag waving above the entrance to their tent.

A woman wearing high heels, short pink hot pants and a top to match sashays her way up ahead crossing the street as Nick Obligacion turns his sedan right off Lincoln Street and onto Sonora Street in the heart of an aging industrial park. Fifty feet above Interstate 5 traffic whizzes by what arguably given the right conditions would be a prime location for an industrial employer.

“She’s been there since at least last week,” the Manteca police chief said of a woman resting on a mattress covered with blankets against a cyclone fence on the sidewalk.

As he nears St. Mary’s Dining Room and three nearby homeless shelters the number of tents, bedroll camps, and sidewalk homesteads multiply rapidly. They start getting bigger and grander in scale. One employs so much blue tarp that it looks like a mini circus tent. Pilfered shopping carts filled to the brim and beyond vastly outnumber the parked cars.

For blocks in each direction you will find the homeless. Some are moving but most aren’t.

It is clear why the nearby individual properties have been vacant for years.

The police chief is almost apologetic.

He doesn’t want to say anything that reflects negatively on the job St. Mary’s Interfaith Ministries is doing or the solutions that Stockton has committed to in a bid to deal with the homeless.

But he does want Manteca residents to understand different solutions have different impacts.

• • •

Manteca homeless summit at month’s end

Obligacion is preparing for a series of meetings as part of the Manteca homeless summit tentatively being planned for the end of the month. The multi-days and different times are designed to make sure as many people can participate as possible.

One solution that’s been bantered about is a shelter for single men to be placed in an industrial park. No one has said it, but the only likely candidate should the community opt for such as solution would be the Manteca Industrial Park.

It would create a replica situation of Stockton. It would attract an invading army of homeless that would become permanent fixtures along Industrial Park Drive, Spreckels Avenue, South Main Street, as well as nearby neighborhoods and shopping centers.

“This,” Obligacion noted of what was before him on Harrison Avenue in Stockton, “is off the beaten track in Stockton.”

He confirms the answer to the obvious question. With 72,000 residents, there is no “off the beaten track” in Manteca.

“If you build a shelter for 100, then 200 will come,” Obligacion said.

Manteca Police officers that interact with the homeless note that the growing numbers of recent months include “transplants” from other communities such as Escalon, Ripon, other California cities, the Midwest and even Stockton.

Yes, even Stockton where there is repertoire of services aimed at helping the homeless.

“They come to Manteca for the same reason other people do,” Obligacion said. “They feel safer.”

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t armed with knives and other weapons.

More than one city worker has startled a homeless person asleep in park shrubs or along the Tidewater. It usually prompts the homeless to come out of a fitful sleep in defensive mode.

“The last thing we want to see is a city worker gets hurt or killed,” Obligacion said.

But the homeless can’t survive on safety alone. They come for one thing and one thing only — money. Some will take food but they want money.

• • •

Some homeless commute to Manteca as panhandling here is more lucrative

There is a reason why some will commute daily in beat up cars from as far away as the Modesto Reservoir or opt to spend the nights on the streets

Mantecans have heart, big hearts. 

That can easily translate into $60 or so a day tax free panhandling.

Officers have relayed to the police chief comments made by homeless individuals that they prefer Manteca over Stockton and Modesto because people here give freely.

Several homeless individuals have comment to Bulletin reports that Manteca welcomes “free range homeless” that are free to move about thanks in part to people’s generosity with money as compared to many Bay Area communities such as Fremont.

Underscoring just how far some will go to help others was the Samaritan last week that paid for pizza to be delivered to the homeless along Moffat Boulevard.

And while Obligacion doesn’t want to see anyone starve, he said that is exactly why Manteca’s homeless problem is multiplying.

“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” the police chief said. “It is a societal problem.”

The homeless, he notes, have rights and so do those who have issues with them,

“We all are protected by the same big piece of paper,” Obligacion said in reference to the Constitution.

And while police will enforce laws involving criminal behavior and quality of life, they can’t go much beyond that.

“We need the community’s help,” Obligacion said.

And by that he means two things.

First, and foremost, people need to stop enabling the homeless. The police chief noted there are services in Manteca and nearby that offer help. And the police chief wants to help those who want help. Several weeks ago he participated in the Stockton WorkNet stand down for homeless veterans. He escorted one gentleman to various places in Stockton to take care of his needs including getting dental work and picking up a new bedroll.

As long as they can get money and — in the case of more than a few — buy booze and such they aren’t going to leave Manteca.

Obligacion noted one of his officers who spends the most time dealing with the homeless has determined that 95 percent of those single men and single women on the street aren’t looking for help. They just want a handout to keep living on their terms.

The police chief wants to make sure the other 5 percent get help.

That said he can’t do much about the other 95 percent if people continually open their pockets and hearts by giving to the homeless directly instead of a number of Manteca-based organizations that provide emergency food and other assistance. 

He noted businessmen that don’t want the homeless hanging around their stores can be part of the solution.

• • •

One liquor store refuses to sell to homeless

Obligacion noted one liquor store that flat out refuses to sell to a number of homeless because of that.

“They do not have to sell to them,” Obligacion said.

In other words, if merchants don’t want the Manteca business climate to suffer they might do well to forfeit a couple bucks on a sale today to avoid customers being driven away in droves in the future if more and more homeless view Manteca as a promised land of sorts.

As to criticism that the police won’t force the homeless to move from private property, that simply isn’t the case. The police are bound by the law just like anyone else.

If they receive a complaint from neighbors about the homeless camping out on vacant property in an empty house, they can check on them and ask them to leave. But unless they have a complaint from the actual property owner they can’t force them to move on.

To that end, a number of property owners in Manteca have filed letters with the police department regarding trespassing on their property.

In those cases police on the first response will tell the homeless to move on and wait until they do so. If they are called back a second time for the same person, they will be arrested.

The closing of the restrooms at Library Park — perhaps the highest profile move so far in a bid to address homeless issues — ended up scattering the homeless throughout Manteca.

That decision was made due to the fact Library Park had become a big congregating point for the homeless and that a number of needles and such had been found in the bathroom.

“It is only a temporary closure,” the police chief said of the restrooms.

But it does underscore a point.

Whatever Manteca does to address the homeless it shouldn’t be in one spot as it will become a permanent gathering spot for the homeless.

“If we get 10 organizations that want to do something once a month then they should do it in 10 different locations around town,” Obligacion said.

The reason is simple. If the homeless know they can access something several times a week, once a week, or twice a month they will set up “house” nearby.

Obligacion said he is not against a day drop-in center as long as it does become a de facto homeless shelter. By having a daily place to congregate, shower, go to the bathroom, and eat the police chief said you will get what you can find below where Interstate 5 meets the Crosstown Freeway in Stockton.

Some additional steps are being taken in advance of the homeless summit.

One involves presenting a proposed ordinance to the City Council later this month or at the first November meeting making it unlawful to urinate and defecate in public.

Some may scratch their head on that one since state law references such acts being illegal. But Obligacion is dealing in reality.

A state criminal law needs the district attorney’s office to prosecute.

Obligacion noted if the DA has limited resources and they’ve got an armed robbery case, theft, and a public urination case to possibly prosecute they’d likely would go with a more serious crime.

“That’s what I would expect and I think most people would (too),” he said.

By making it a city ordinance, it could be prosecuted by the city attorney’s office.

He is also toying with the idea of generating resource cards that note how the homeless can access various available services. He would provide those to businesses and others to give to the homeless when they ask for help in lieu of money.

What he doesn’t want to do are things that may seem mean-spirited or essentially aren’t effective.

One suggestion that’s been made is to put up signs urging people not to contribute to the problem by giving money to panhandlers with information on them to access a website for information on how people can be a part of the solution.

Obligacion said that comes across as seeming like you’re saying “don’t feed the animals.”

Posting signs in general noting city prohibitions can send a wrong message. While it makes people aware of the ordinances, he noted Library Park being saturated with them or placing them at freeway off ramps noting panhandling is prohibited at such locations can send a wrong message to people.

“It (the signs) would say a lot about your community that you don’t want to convey,” the police chief said as it makes the homeless problem more visible to visitors and those who may want to move here or locate a business here.

Obligacion hopes to have all community groups that work with the homeless or want to assist to attend the upcoming summit.

• • •

Patience required for effective solution instead of band aid

The goal of the gathering is to determine what resources are available and what they can provide, where they will provide the services, how often that will happen, and what the community is willing to do.

“We (the police) can’t do it alone,” the police chief said. “It’s going to take the community’s help.”

The police chief is also asking for the public’s patience.

He noted several years ago there were complaints of an Internet gambling café on North Maple Avenue.

‘I received numerous calls,” Obligacion said.

The city also was receiving applications from others that wanted to open Internet cafes elsewhere in Manteca that the chief suspected were also fronts for online gambling.

The decision was made to build a rock solid case against the particular downtown operation so that when they were busted it would send a clear message.

That’s exactly what happened. The case was so ironclad with the most severe charges possible that the other parties withdrew permits for Internet cafes in Manteca.

“I don’t want to just put a band-aid on the homeless problem,” Obligacion said. “I want to make sure we have a long-term solution that works.”