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A HOMELESS COMMISSION: IS IT PATH FORWARD FOR MANTECA?
Businessman & former councilman argues it is as it provides mechanism for action, community input & accountability
HOMELESS WOMAN
A homeless woman with her belongings sits under the 120 overcrossing along Moffat Boulevard Wednesday after Caltrans cleared out illegal homeless encampments.

Has the time come for Manteca’s elected leadership to conclude addressing homeless issues and perennial housing affordability is likely to be a forever thing for the city to deal with much like public safety and community planning?

It is a question that may be answered next month.

Staff, on the consensus of the City Council, has been asked to come up with the pros and cons of creating a “permanent” homeless and housing affordability commission.

The council expects staff to report back to them on the proposal in the upcoming council meeting cycles and not six months from now.

The idea, advanced by former Manteca Councilman Mike Morowit at last week’s council meeting, is based in the same reality the current and previous councils have embraced — homeless and housing affordability are among the absolute most important concerns facing the City of Manteca.

Morowit’s idea involves a “permanent” commission of council appointees committed to focusing on homeless and housing affordability issues.

“It will keep the city accountable (and on track),” Morowit said as well as increasing transparency that will be needed to enlist community support and help.

Morowit noted the current situation does not allow for quick solutions to small problems such as homeless repeatedly defecating in the same area.

“You can’t work through issues when people only have 3 minutes to comment on them at a public council meeting that the council can’t legally respond to,” Morowit said. “Besides, the council usually has a dozen or so issues they need to deal with during a meeting.”

His idea would have a representative of police, fire, public works, planning, and parks at commission meetings.

At the same time the council would set aside funds — perhaps $50,000 or so at a time — to allow various departments working with the commission to address little problems quickly and effectively.

"Based on public concern, the commission could direct staff to place a portable potty in an area and have it routinely cleaned by a service,” Morowit said.

He already expects staff to contend they don’t have adequate “bandwith” which is bureaucratic jargon for adequate staff time to pull off what Morowit is suggesting.

“I hate that word,” Morowit said of “bandwidth” inferring it is a convenient crutch that assures the city will never be effective as they can at addressing homeless issues.

Morowit said if that is indeed the case, the commission’s very existence will force the council and senior management to rethink how they are approaching an issue that has for years ranked as the top tier of problems elected officials say they want to address.

Morowit asserts the city is doomed to run around in circles unless they commit the resources needed to make the situation better.

 

Commission would have

ability to seek solitons

The idea would be for the commission to make decisions on community concerns regarding the homeless on smaller issues operating within a general overall framework established by the council.

On other items such as bigger initiatives they’d make recommendations to elected leaders,

Morowit believes such a commission needs a cross-section of people serving such as a businessperson, a resident, someone from the non-profits serving the homeless, and perhaps even a homeless individuals.

The idea is to get everyone working on solutions. As such the commission would make the city much more responsive to homeless issues.

During the past six years Morowit said he has noticed a change in attitude in the community. While there are those that erroneously think the city legally can roust the homeless and put them on a bus without ending up paying seven figure payouts for lawyers, Morowit said most people seem to just want the city to do something that makes a difference.

He noted posting that two homeless individuals secured jobs at Walmart and that “x” amount of meals were served and showers taken on the city’s Facebook page as the result of Manteca spending $50,000 in tax dollars a month on a “cooling center/temporary homeless shelter” is far from being enough.

 

Not a ploy to undermine

navigation center site pick

Some contend Morowit is trying to torpedo the 8-acre site the council majority has settled on for a homeless shelter-navigation center.

“Where the navigation center goes is a council decision,” Morowit said. “That decision has already been made.”

Morowit said it is about making sure everything regarding the navigation center/shelter “is done right” as well as making sure citywide homeless issues are addressed in a timely and robust manner. That’s why he is advocating the city establish a commission and bureaucratic apparatus devoted exclusively to that goal.

He added given the city has spent a better part of five years trying to find a location that would be effective in terms of placement and how it can be developed to minimize impacts on  adjoining neighbors. Morowit said  Manteca can ill afford to not move forward with actually getting a navigating center and shelter in place.

Morowit turned to Berkeley and other cities that have gone the commission route.

The liquor store owner who has encounters with the homeless as well as his ears bent about customers fed up with the issues the homeless commit on a daily basis doesn’t fit the progressive mold.

A conservative from a fiscal viewpoint and leaning liberal on many social issues Morowit — despite some criticism — makes it clear he is not motivated by politics. He’s not joining the race for mayor that is likely to get more crowded than the current four prospects although Morowit hasn’t ruled out a run for council once districts are drawn up.

Morowit is being driven by three facts: Homeless issues aren’t going away, the problems they create are expensive, and elected leaders have no choice except to follow the law of the land which, in the case of Manteca homeless, was the Supreme Court’s refusal to review a 9th District a court ruling.

That ruling, in a nutshell, effectively suspends all enforcement of so called “quality of life” crimes the homeless due to simply to survive unless a community has an option for them. That option is an available bed in a shelter.

 

Addressing the root

of homeless problem

It does not mean that if Manteca — or any city in California, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, or Arizona where the 9th District Court of Appeals is the law of the land — has 300 homeless people at any given time they have to have 300 available beds. They only have to have a bed available where a homeless person in an illegal encampment or sleeping in a public space such as a sidewalk can go before law enforcement can roost them.

Of course, that doesn’t address the root of the problem which is getting people off the streets or preventing them from ending up there. That is where the navigation center comes into play in conjunction with a drop-in shelter.

A navigation center provides access to a wide variety of services from detox and mental health for those that need it to providing documents such as California ID cards issues to non-drivers the DMV and a physical and virtual address key to seeking employment. It also offers everything in between from clothes for interviews and to wear to a job once one is secured to transitional housing that allows them to save money up to secure rentals on their once they land employment.

Morowit was on the council that dealt with the fallout of the class action lawsuit alleging Manteca was violating the civil rights of the homeless. That lawsuit was filed by four homeless men led by the guitar strumming and sidewalk blocking Richard Schuknecht who routinely set up camp by the East Yosemite Avenue McDonald’s driveway entrance.

Manteca, on the advice of legal counsel, read the writing on the wall. Defending against such class action lawsuits involving the homeless never is successful in court. Ultimately they end up with taxpayers forking over hundreds of thousands — and even millions — in legal fees and still have to fund a solution but under a court directive.

The class action lawsuit was settled and legal fees covered with less than $50,000.

Key to that settlement was the deployment of a Manteca Police community resource officer to work with the homeless while making sure crimes beyond those simply committed only to live were addressed. It also involved the officer working with appropriate community and government agencies to connect the homeless with the services they provide in a bid to get them off the street.

When the city management tried to do it on the “cheap” and go with only one officer Morowit was the one that pressed the issue at a council meeting. He put senior management on the spot when they conceded two officers would be more effective as it would provide seven day-a-week coverage.

And although the council directed such staffing be a minimum of two officers, for a variety of reasons much of the time in the past five years there has only been one officer.

That underscores why Morowit believes the homeless commission approach makes sure the city is consistent and doesn’t dismiss or brush aside a top tier priority — addressing homeless issues.

“It would be much harder for the city to go for 18 months without a second officer in place without the council noticing,” Morowit said of a formal commission being in place.

 

Homeless are costing

Manteca significant money

Those who have dismissed Morowit’s point that a commission is needed given the scope of money and resources that have been — and need to be committed to address homeless issues — say the city hasn’t spent a penny of general fund money yet on the shelter effort.

“That is simply not true,” Morowit said.

If Manteca were staffing both community resource officer positrons as senior management was directed to do that would come to nearly $500,000 a year.

But, as Morowit points out, that is only the tip of the iceberg represented by law enforcement costs.

A substantial amount of patrol time is devoted to homeless crimes where it takes multiple officers to bring situations under control. That runs the gamut from aggressive behavior against others, displaying weapons while walking down streets, and public intoxication, to those either mentally ill or under the influence doing things such as stripping in public and yelling.

Morowit notes homeless related calls also tie up firefighter personnel. The city also has a significant amount of resources invested in parks maintenance on a daily basis to address homeless created blight when they legally can. That includes cleaning up excrement, washing down urine, picking up needles and general trash in places like Library Park so when the general public accesses such location as the day rolls on the traces of the homeless are minimized.

Then there are the costs incurred by the Manteca District Ambulance as well as Doctors Hospital’s emergency room dealing with homeless. Toss in the costs businesses incur cleaning and repairing property on a daily basis due to problems the homeless create and that “no tax dollars or community cost” assumption is soaring past $1 million on an annual basis in terms of resources tied up and related expenses.

It doesn’t include loss issues many merchants deal with where homeless boldly go into stores and walk out — sometimes pushing a cart — with items such as food. Store managers, who have asked that their business not be identified, have confirmed they have a policy that in most cases directs employees not to confront such thefts to avoid them suffering serious injuries if a homeless theft culprit turns violent.

The store managers confirmed theft is an issue but that it appears to involve only a handful of the homeless.

 

Costs going forward

regarding homeless

Morowit believes the city is in a fantasy world if they believe once they have a navigation center in place they will be able to turn it over 100 percent to a non-profit that will be able to rely exclusively on donations and grants to sustain a shelter and run an effective navigation center.

“It’s going to cost the city money,” Morowit said of the annual operation of the navigation center.

Regardless, Morowit said the effort will need oversight beyond one staff member devoting 20 percent of their time to it while juggling other municipal concerns.

He also noted a commission devoted to the twin issues of homeless and affordable housing will create a level of transparency and accountability Manteca will need to have with citizens, businesses, those agencies working with the homeless, and even the homeless to make sure progress is made.

 

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com