More than two dozen homeless have taken over one of three downtown Manteca parking lots that the city is in the finishing touches of a nearly $1 million rehabilitation effort that also includes alleys.
It happened after the city — with less than two weeks to go before the Pumpkin Fair — posted signs that they were restoring turf so therefore closing Library and Wilson parks where the homeless typically congregate.
Merchants say the de facto homeless encampment in the parking lot behind the 200 block of West Yosemite Avenue has been scaring off customers who don’t feel safe parking vehicles in the lot to access stores and services.
What makes the parking lot problematic is unlike the two parks that are posted to close after 8 p.m. and stay so until dusk meaning everyone including the homeless can’t be in the parks after those hours, the parking lot falls under the perimeters of legal decisions that shaped the city’s anti-camping ordinance. In short that means they can sleep there between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. as cities must allow the unsheltered to sleep in public places that don’t block access on sidewalks, are not streets, are not parks that are closed to everyone during certain hours, or are exceptions carved out for everybody. In Manteca the exceptions for everyone — including the homeless — to being allowed to sleep when it comes to public property between 11 p.m. an 6 a.m. is the Manteca Transit Center and Moffat Community Center that serves as the Manteca Veterans Center.
Homeless are staying
in parking lot 24/7
That means the homeless can basically stay in the parking lot 24/7 creating a de facto homeless encampment in the heart of the city as long as they don’t pitch a tent between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. or sleep at that location between those hours. Six business owners and workers in the area said that has led to a significant upswing in defecation and urination around buildings, a spike in the number of dogs off leash, and a huge jump in trash and debris. One store owner said they saw a homeless individual take a can of beans that a Good Samaritan that believed they were helping gave him and after deciding he didn’t like the beans he tossed the can spilling the beans onto the recently paved parking lot.
Areas that aren’t carved out or fenced off such as the Manteca Civic Center and municipal parking lots are fair game for the homeless to temporarily camp from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. It isn’t clear whether that includes the 525 space Big League Dreams parking as the city’s sports complex has been leased to a private firm for 35 years or whether it includes the 1,400 stall Orchard Valley parking lot that portions were “leased” to the city for 35 years as part of a sales tax revenue sharing deal that helped secure Bass Pro Shops.
Three members of the downtown business community — Brenda Franklin of Tipton’s Stationery, Inda Janis of Janis Music, and Jeana Gee who owns five buildings where tenants are being impacted by what some on city staff have referred to as “the relocation of the homeless” to the parking lot — shared their frustrations with the Manteca City Council during a special meeting Tuesday.
They confirmed there is now a jump in public defecation and urination they are forced to clean up so as not to cost them customers. The three characterized it as a “growing public health crisis.”
State law, court rulings
restrict what city can do
John Brinton, in trying to explain how the city’s hands have been tied to a large degree by California law and 9th District Court of Appeals ruling, said he has never seen anything like the current homeless problem in his nearly 40 years as city attorney. Brinton said the city in working within a legal settlement regarding how they deal with the homeless pushes to the limit what they can legally do. He added what is happening now in Manteca and in cities throughout California is the new norm unless an effort to get a 9th District Appeals Court ruling on illegal camping before the Supreme Court and then overturned succeeds.
He noted the only way the city could possibly avoid being held to the 9th District ruling is if the local taxpayers paid for housing to shelter the homeless as well as pay for ongoing upkeep and maintenance. Such a move, Brinton said would only serve to create a magnet to attract more homeless to Manteca. He said the courts and state have created a situation for cities “if you do the right thing you get sued and if you do the wrong thing you get sued.”
“We are living in a new world,” Brinton said.
That prompted Franklin to respond by saying “we’re living in a mud pit.”
In a question and answer format, the following is a recap of the rules Manteca is required to operate by:
Homeless camping Q&A
uQUESTION: Why can the homeless stay in the parking lot all day and all night with their belongings?
uANSWER: As long as they don’t pitch a tent between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., the courts say the unsheltered have a right to be there.
uQUESTION: So does the city enforce its anti-camping and quality of life laws when police come across violations?
uANSWER: Yes. In the case of illegal camping on private property and in areas that the city can legally prohibit if it is on public land, officers will first warn offenders and then cite them if they don’t comply. Brinton noted the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office does not prosecute quality of life crimes. They do, however, work with local police departments to target habitual offenders that create the most problems to build cases that can get those that create the most issues of the street and into jail for a reasonable amount of time. The city, through Brinton’s office, does prosecute individual quality of life citations. In successful prosecutions, though, those convicted rarely serve more than a third of their term and may not be jailed all based on whether the San Joaquin County Jail needs room to house more serious and violent offenders.
uQUESTION: Why can’t the city be tougher?
uANSWER: They have to follow state law and court rulings. Manteca avoided a federal court case that led to a settlement for the updating of the anti-camping ordinance and the establishment of two police officers dedicated to working to get homeless off the streets and to enforce what quality of life issues and other crimes they can involving the homeless. Police officers working with non-profits have gotten more than 240 people off the streets so far. Other cities that haven’t taken such measures are being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal court.
uQUESTION: So this means anyone can sit or lie on public sidewalks between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.?
uANSWER: Yes, as long as they don’t break other laws.
uQUESTION: So what if someone wants to sleep in front of the Manteca Bulletin in the doorway? Can they do so if it is between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.?
uANSWER: No. The camping ordinance that has been in place for a number of years prohibits camping on private property except for as noted in a residential area. The doorway is private property while the sidewalk is not. That said, the sidewalk in front of the Bulletin is too narrow to allow sleeping as it blocks passage not just for those under ADA rules but people in general.
uQUESTION: So if someone is sleeping in the Bulletin doorway at any time do the police have to receive a complaint to enforce the law?
uANSWER: If an officer sees such a violation they can take steps to get the individual to move. Keep in mind, though, that officers have to follow a hierarchy in handling calls. Quality of life issues aren’t at the top of the list and are handled as manpower is available.
uQUESTION: So anyone can sleep on the public sidewalk between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.?
uANSWER: It depends if other laws are being broken. It may not apply in this specific case but the American with Disabilities Act requires a set minimum width for the handicapped to be able to navigate. That is why it is almost a given that people cannot legally lie on public sidewalks in residential neighborhoods because they are narrower.
uQUESTION: When the ordinance says anyone can sit or lie on public property between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., does that mean they can sleep in parks?
uANSWER: That question needs to be taken in two parts. First, it is not illegal to sleep in a city park providing you can legally be there. Camping, however, is banned.
The second part of the answer is where other laws come into play. It is illegal to be in any city park between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. In addition the City Council by minute order to call for parks to be closed earlier or operate different hours. The Tidewater Bikeway, for example is closed from sundown to sunrise. A sign at Wilson Park where the homeless often gather reflects a different city park closure law of 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.
uQUESTION: It seems the police aren’t addressing the issue — why not?
uANSWER: There are two officers dedicated to addressing homeless concerns. They can’t be everywhere. At the same time other officers are dispatched when available and when needed. The city asks when you see what you believe to be a homeless problem call the non-emergency police dispatch number and alert authorities.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org