There are a lot of problems facing San Joaquin County as a whole.
But pervasively, three of them that were picked as the key elements to focus on by the joint city council/county criminal justice task force when they met this month were inextricably linked – quality of life, mental health and homelessness.
And those issues appear to have no borders.
While Manteca has been struggling to come up with a way to deal with a homeless population that has swelled in recent years and overwhelmed the non-profit groups that aim to assist them, other communities, like Lathrop, have their own concerns about what to do when the problem crops up in their own front yard.
Lathrop councilman Paul Akinjo gave a report to the rest of the council about the issues facing law enforcement across the county, the fiery points weren’t Assembly Bill 109, which shuffled low-risk inmates from prisons to county jails and put those low-risk jail inmates out on supervised release. They weren’t even centered on Proposition 47, which reclassified some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
It was about homelessness.
Akinjo, who represents Lathrop on the joint council, said that the conclusion centered on making sure those that make first contact with individuals know exactly what it is that they’re looking for.
“We concluded that our law enforcement agencies need training and this cannot be a healthcare issue,” Akinjo said. “They’re not trained to be a doctor or a psychologist or a psychoanalyst – they don’t have the time.
“Every contact that they have with anybody on drugs or with mental issues ends disastrous. Because when you have a knife, you’re going to get shot. When you have a rock...the weapon that law enforcement has is a gun, and that’s what they use to protect themselves.”
Things weren’t quite that black and white for Lathrop’s city manager.
According to Steve Salvatore, a big part of the problem stems from two clashing ideologies – one that strives to get the offenders, the homeless and the mentally ill off the street and another that says there’s no way that they can accept them.
The issue, he said, is statewide.
Councilman Omar Ornelas, however, took a different approach.
When the council approved an ordinance that outlawed panhandling, Ornelas viewed the move as an outright ban on homelessness in the community and a precursory strike against those who don’t need any more strikes against them.
Classifying their lifestyle as criminal, he said, won’t solve anything.
“It’s unfortunate but in this country we tend to criminalize homelessness and mental illness and we do so even in this city – we passed an ordinance that basically says we don’t want homeless people here and we don’t want people staying in other people’s places. It wasn’t that long ago,” he said. “If we’re trying to send a message that we’re trying to improve a community and the quality of life for many people we need to watch the things that we do so that we don’t double speak on those issues because if we pass an ordinance saying that we don’t want homeless people here because of panhandling or sleeping under a tree then we’re telling those types of people that they’re not welcome in this city that’s the kind of foundation that we’re building this city on.”
Akinjo fired back with a question about how such a program or a facility, if that’s what is needed, would be funded – noting that the group also agreed that elected officials need to lean on Sacramento and even Washington politicians to secure financing.
“I’m not saying these are things that are going to be fixed right away or fixed tomorrow, but certainly planning for this and passing ordinances and laws that give us a vision about where we want to go will start that track,” Ornelas said back. “If we pass an ordinance now that says we don’t want them in our city then that’s the we’re going down and it’s jail time and not providing any services to them.
“But if we begin those processes and start providing services to the homeless people in our community – who I bet if you ask some of them will tell you that they live here and even grew up here – then over time we’ll get to the point where we can provide them to all and the alternative doesn’t have to be jail time.”