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Cantu: Unless city acts on shelter more buildings likely to burn in Manteca
homeless fire
This is the inside of a vacant home in the neighborhood behind the Burlington store on South Main Street that was gutted by a fire started by the homeless.

Mayor Ben Cantu warned his council colleagues Tuesday if the city doesn’t move quickly on addressing sheltering the homeless before cold weather sets in that they should expect more buildings in Manteca to burn due to fires those living on the streets start in a bid to stay warm.

“I don’t want more downtown buildings to burn,” Cantu said before the council directed an internal municipal committee composed of representatives from various city departments that deal with homeless issues to produce recommendations regarding a resource center or possibly a drop-in shelter location by year’s end.

There have been at least two downtown buildings gutted by the homeless that started warming fires. One was three years ago at the two-story Sycamore Arms building at West Yosemite and Sycamore Avenue. The other was an office building for a former used car lot at East Yosemite Avenue and Lincoln Avenue that burned twice before being torn down. Over the years there have been a dozen or so structure fires — vacant homes, empty buildings along Moffat Boulevard — that are suspected to have been started with homeless warming or cooking fires getting out of control.

The council voted 4-1 with Dave Breitenbucher dissenting to direct the staff to weigh the costs as well as pro and cons for various sites in the city and compare that with buying and remodeling the former 57,000-square-foot Qualex building at 555 Industrial Park Drive. Breitenbucher’s no is keeping in line with his steadfast position the Qualex building is essentially a financial rat hole.

The city’s history with the Qualex building tends to support Brietenbucher’s position. It was bought in 2006 for $3.6 million with the intent to remodel it as a new home for the Manteca Police Department. They spent more than $1 million on top of that upgrading the seismic rating of the building before abandoning the project after the state required new police facilities to have 24/7 staffing of correctional officers to oversee holding cells. The city determined it would create a reoccurring $600,000 staffing cist they could ill afford.

Then about six years ago the roof developed issues causing water damage. The city received a $150,000 insurance payment for the damages. At that time they received a $350,000 estimate to repair the roof. The roof has yet to be repaired.

The council discussion was triggered by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of a bill that passed the California Legislature that would have allowed the city serving as the successor agency to the redevelopment agency that bought the Qualex building and was since disbanded by state order along with other RDAs to sell it to a non-profit for $1 for the exclusive purpose of a homeless resource center.

Newsom argued it would open Pandora’s box regarding other RDA properties yet to be auctioned off elsewhere in California. Given some agencies that would benefit from the sale of the Qualex building — Manteca Unified specifically — could make the case the proceeds they would be entitled to from a sale should be backfilled by the state it would create a financial burden for Sacramento.

If the building sells for its appraised value of $1.25 million — almost $2.4 million less than the Manteca RDA paid for it — the school district would be due more than $600,000,

The city, if it is forced to sell the Qualex building, they could end up trying to buy it back for use as a homeless resource center as some on the council have suggested.

Also they are considering placing their share of the proceeds — which if it sells at market value would be $157,000 — into an account restricted for efforts to address homeless issues. If that happens Manteca will have whittled a $4.6 million investment made by those Manteca taxpayers that are still paying off RDA bonds for the next 20 or so years down to $157,000.

Cantu notes homeless

warning fires also

tie up city services

Not addressing the homeless can be a drain on city services in addition to quality of life concerns, Cantu noted.

He shared how he was at the Denny’s Restaurant on South Main Street when a homeless person started a warming fire in a landscaped area outside the restaurant. Cantu said that triggered the response of four police officers, the fire department, and an ambulance.

Cantu at one point expressed that he hoped the general cost figures the staff committee will devise is based on accommodating 218 people.

That would seem to point to his favoring a drop-in shelter component given the federal 9th District Court of Appeals has made it clear cities can’t enforce anti-camping and restricting where the homeless can sleep in public places if they don’t have an alternate solution which means shelter to house all of those that are homeless at a given time.

Acting City Manager Miranda Lutzow made it clear last week a drop-in homeless shelter will be vetted by the effort being under taken by staff in a bid to develop a laundry list of all options to explore and present to the City Council for consideration.

Lutzow noted under the existing ruling if there is available capacity in a shelter the city could legally enforce laws aimed at stopping the homeless on sidewalks, on municipal property, in parking lots, in parks, and other public locations.

Based on the homeless count conducted in January that noted 218 homeless people in Manteca for a 144 percent over the 2017 level of 88, such a shelter would need to accommodate at least 218 individuals.

The effort includes virtually every department that deals with or is impacted with the homeless including fire, police (that includes code enforcement), community development, streets, parks and recreation, and such.

Lutzow wants every option vetted and then presented to the council so they can make an informed decision and give clear direction of what to do next.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email