It is 5 a.m. Friday.
Councilman Gary Singh is out and about with Mike Kelly — one of Manteca Police Department’s two dedicated community resource officers that address homeless issues — as he makes his rounds.
One of the first stops is in front of the gated courtyard at Manteca Library along Center Street where on any given night at least a half dozen homeless are sleeping.
By now it is 6 a.m. It’s time for the homeless to wake up, clean up and get moving. Kelly is enforcing Manteca’s carefully crafted laws about sleeping on sidewalks that meets legal thresholds imposed by the courts. Anyone can sleep on municipal sidewalks providing there is adequate clearance between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The foundation of the ruling was simple. Given being homeless per se is not a crime, cities cannot make it illegal to prevent the homeless from doing things that any person would need to do to function such as sleep.
Given Kelly is on a first-name basis with most of the homeless it is a cordial encounter. The homeless wake up, clean up any mess they may have made, and pack up their belongings.
It is a far cry from two years ago when the homeless would camp out in the library court yard out of view from the street where they’d often urinate and even defecate, leave litter strewn about, break out lights so they could sleep and jimmy a connection to the library’s electrical system to charge their phones. Often times they would still be there when the library staff arrived making the women employees uncomfortable as they passed by them entering the building.
It was from what Kelly was observing every day that generated the recommendation that the City Council adopted to secure the courtyard with wrought iron fencing. As for the respectful interaction as well as the conduct reflected in clearing up their messes, it is the direct result of the city investing $300,000 a year in two officers to address homeless problems.
The library was one of many stops Kelly makes on a day to make sure the homeless comply with city laws that the courts say can be enforced.
Singh — who will stick with Kelly until 10 a.m. observing his work — notes the officer knows every nook and cranny in Manteca where the homeless try to be invisible. For every temporary sidewalk encampment, there are four or five more that are well hidden behind landscaping, drainage ditches, and more.
Singh is the Manteca councilman arguably the most versed in homeless issues primarily due to ongoing problems at various retail complexes he manages. In an average week he will have four or so confrontations with homeless who get angry at him when he tries to get them to leave property where the prerequisite letters have been put on file with the Manteca Police. He’s actually been physically attacked by one homeless man.
Singh’s 5-hour ride-along Friday was a fact-finding mission of sorts. He made notes of things the city could require in shopping center and parking lot designs based on where Kelly checked on homeless that would eliminate providing cover.
He also noticed a lot of shopping carts abandoned around town. By and large they are left by those that are sheltered that take the carts from stores and once they get home leave them where they can. While Manteca has a program in place to address such issues, Singh believes the city could step up the effort and work with the homeless through Inner City Action to provide a fee-based cart retrieval service for stores.
The big take away from Friday was re-affirming three truths that Manteca and other cities must deal with:
*while most homeless are respectful and try to remain invisible a relatively small handful will get belligerent, get in people’s face, leave a mess, and have total disregard for the law even when it is one that complies with court rulings regarding the homeless.
*some homeless will likely never take the first step require to get off the streets.
*there are also homeless who may not be a lost cause but for whatever reason will eschew sleeping on a cot in the emergency warming center where heaters keep the air at 72 degrees to opt to stay on the damp streets trying to stay warm in 40 degree temperature.
Singh noted Kelly repeatedly asked the homeless why they were spending the night in the cold when they could be in the warming center.
Most of the time, the homeless dismissed the idea of spending time in a place that they are not familiar with or have rules they may not want to follow.
Thursday night the warming center had 40 homeless people.
“That’s 40 less homeless on the street,” Singh said.
Feedback from some Manteca residents is dismissive of the emergency warming center at 555 Industrial Park Drive as a waste of tax dollars and simply coddling the homeless. Others revert to the “run them out of town” argument that is essentially asking for the full weight of the courts as well as expensive class action lawsuits to rain down on a city. They also do not like the idea of a permanent drop-in shelter
“Without (a shelter) all our officers will be able to do is move the homeless down the street,” Singh noted.
And thanks to the recent Supreme Court edict that lets a 9th District court ruling stand, in most cases law enforcement won’t even be able to do that unless there are available beds for the unsheltered within the jurisdiction.
Singh also noted Inner City Action doesn’t operate a typical warming center.
They work with the homeless to build trust and a relationship in a bid to address issues keeping them on the streets and then training them and actually helping place them in private sector jobs.
The five weeks Inner City Action operated a resource center with no overnight sleeping at the same location last year, they were able to get 28 homeless permanently off Manteca’s streets.
“You are never going to completely resolve the homeless problem but you can make it better,” Singh said.
And in doing so Singh is confident that ultimately taxpayers will save money.
The $300,000 cost of dedicated officers and $25,000 to help Inner City Action buy diesel to operate generators through the cold emergency that ends March 31 is just the tip of the ice berg.
In the past Singh has said he’d like to see a full accounting of the expenses homeless people create for Manteca from public works and park department clean up to policing issues. That accounting would cover the cost of vandalism and such to public and private property, emergency costs, thefts by those homeless that steal items from stores and more.
It would also encompass opportunity cost reflected in how tax investments are being underused such as the $1.4 million that was spent to expand and upgrade Library Park.
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