The squealing sounds of kids at play filled the air at Library Park.
Across the way at Wilson Park it was more subdued. Several homeless were talking with volunteer outreach workers and government agency employees about how to get off the street.
The downtown Manteca parks are separated by a street.
What was taking place at the two parks late Tuesday morning were worlds apart with both being the direct result of the City of Manteca’s effort to deal with homeless concerns.
“It’s great seeing families being able to come down and use the park,” Manteca Police Community Service Officer Mike Kelly said as he stood in the middle of Wilson Park. “There’s not a single homeless person there (at Library Park).”
Wilson Park was the fourth stop of a caravan of nearly two dozen people that Kelly led around town Tuesday going from one homeless encampment or gathering place to another to offer assistance to those that were willing to accept it. Some of the stops Kelly prearranged for homeless that requested specific help such as to deal with mental health or drug addiction issues. Other stops were places that there tend to be a lot of homeless who gather during the day before slipping away under cloak of darkness to nooks and crannies across Manteca to bed down for the night.
“I’m just bringing people together,” Kelly said as a homeless person nearby answered questions a volunteer needed to see if he could get placed in a program.
Kelly points across the way.
“Isn’t that great?” he asked looking toward a jungle gym crawling with children. “People should feel safe to go the park with their kids.”
Tuesday was the second in what will be a monthly outreach designed to bring together government and non-profit agencies to reach out to the homeless. It also avoids duplicity as well as making the delivery of services more efficient and quicker.
‘Most homeless respect
the rules . . . Sometimes
you just have to ask them
to (follow them)’
Someone comments on how clean Wilson Park — the highest profile daytime hub for homeless to gather — is compared to a year ago. The park behind the downtown Post Office was a mini-dumping ground for a while.
“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you have to be a pig,” Kelly said.
He then shared why Wilson Park and other areas where homeless congregate look a little cleaner these days: He asked the homeless to keep the areas clean.
“Most homeless respect the rules,” Kelly said. “Sometimes you just have to ask them to (follow them).”
That said, some of the problems are created by well-meaning people. Kelly noted one individual he observed dropping off a large bag of clothes to a homeless man and leaving. The homeless man took what he needed and left the rest.
Kelly is the point man in Manteca’s efforts to tackle a problem as old as civilization itself. He’s the first community service officer hired by the City of Manteca with the expressed purpose of addressing homeless issues. He’s been on the job for three months. And already by pulling together existing resources he has helped get 30 people off the streets of Manteca. A second CSO will be hired to join him in the coming months.
Some have criticized Manteca’s fairly unique approach of assigning police personnel to work the homeless as a beat. And while there are still plenty of issues to deal with, many people will agree the situation has gotten better. Six months ago you could venture to Library Park during the day and it would have been populated by homeless killing time with nary a kid in sight
“This makes more sense than pushing the homeless around,” Kelly said.
How Manteca Police are tackling homeless concerns in a sense is engaging in crime prevention much the way that devoting resources to Neighborhood Watch as well as dealing with crime.
Kelly makes it clear that he still has to enforce the laws. The time he isn’t spending helping those that want to get off the streets is devoted to dealing with the homeless that break the laws.
The first stop Tuesday was the Northgate Park picnic area. It provides a semi-ideal retreat for the homeless at night given low walls that provide some protection from the elements and people passing by.
A couple that had been homeless for a while was seeking help to get off the street.
While outreach workers sat at a picnic table with the couple to gather needed information to start the process, Kelly talked about how he not only carries a cell phone with a number he exclusively gives to the homeless to contact him “when they are ready” to make a change in their life but also how he works with businesses and even monitors Facebook sites to stay on top of illegal encampments.
People shouldn’t have
to deal with urinating
on their door steps
“Businesses run a city,” Kelly said referring to the taxes they generate that provide municipal services plus the jobs they provide.
Kelly has been working with merchants to address criminal homeless behavior that has been hurting business.
That aside, Kelly said people shouldn’t have to deal with people sleeping on their property, urinating on door steps or scattering trash.
After Northgate Park the group heads to the fenced-in storm retention basin east of Kmart.
It is here that the volunteers find three encampments, including one that is a full blown tent. A homeless individual that said he wanted to access services wasn’t there.
As the group leaves they notice the elaborate tent set up has a posted notice issued by Kelly that gives the occupant a 72-hour warning to clear out or the city will do the job for them.
Saturday is homeless encampment s clean-up day in Manteca. Kelly supervises a work detail whose ranks are filled with those ordered by the courts to perform community service.
There are four or five “new” encampments that pop up each week in Manteca.
In the case of the storm basin that borders North Main Street and the gated Cobblestone neighborhood, Kelly said Kmart is working on repairing several holes in the fence that have been allowing the homeless access. He noted homeless individuals have been stealing pipe and other items from a plumbing supply firm next door to use in building their makeshift housing.
The next stop illustrates how quickly an encampment can become entrenched.
Kelly is taking the outreach folks to see a woman who calls herself “Pretty Lady.” She had indicated she was open to accessing mental health services. When the group arrived at her encampment on the northwest corner of the Louise Avenue overcrossing of Highway 99, she was not there.
What was there were four pilfered Save Mart shopping carts overflowing with things she had collected. Also wedged behind the fence of a city well and the tree-lined embankment was a bicycle, baby cart filled with items and items strewn about.
“She (the homeless woman) collected all of this in a week,” Kelly noted.
The fourth stop was Lincoln Park. There a homeless man that said he was ready to go into a substance abuse program was waiting. As case workers interviewed him, volunteers with the Calvary Community Connections outreach distributed lunch bags and water to the man and other homeless individuals gathered near the group picnic area.
Retired police lieutenant
said Manteca’s current
are an ‘eye opener’
Calvary Community Church Pantry Director Julie MacGregor said Calvary helps feed 1,400 people a month. While the vast majority of people in need pick up food at the pantry at the Lathrop Road church, volunteers will distribute food bags to those on the streets.
The next stop is Wilson Park.
It is here where the outreach workers start making more headway.
One is gathering information critical for obtaining California identification cards that are free to the homeless. The ID is essential to access a variety for services including the ability to get a job. The first monthly outreach had nine people provide information for an ID. An additional five contacted the resource agency several days later.
The effort also helps homeless gain access to Supplemental Security Income, Medi-Cal, or general assistance. Such sources are critical for many to address health issues or to have the resources need to get off the streets.
Mike Cook, who retired from the Manteca Police as a lieutenant and now serves as a department chaplain, said his first ride several months ago with Kelly as he made his daily rounds “was an eye opener.”
Cook, who dealt with homeless on patrol, said the numbers seem to have swelled in recent years. He added that many homeless try to blend in as much as possible.
To that point, there are a number of homeless that don’t look homeless as they don’t fit the stereotype of not being clean and wearing clothes that are ragged or dirty.
A woman at Wilson Park looked like any other typically dressed Manteca resident on a warm fall day.
One of the volunteers who had lived on the streets for seven years herself, noted she had become an expert at “taking a bath” in a Chevron restroom, adding many homeless are fairly resourceful at taking care of hygiene needs and their appearance.
Mike Aguilar — the interim operations commander for the Manteca Police Department — pointed out the adding of the CSO position to deal initially with homeless issues has helped free up patrol as well as providing follow through so the homeless aren’t simply moved “from one place to another.”
Manteca can’t arrest
its way out of
That is keeping with the direction of the Manteca City Council and the strategy crafted by Police Chief Nick Obligacion. The premise — simply put — is to connect the homeless that want help with the right resources while addressing homeless that opt to engage in criminal activity.
That means enforcing the spirit of the law and not the letter given being homeless per se is not a crime.
Obligacion told those participating in Tuesday’s outreach that gathered in the department’s briefing room before they hit the streets that not everybody agrees with the city’s approach.
“We can’t arrest our way out of it,” Obligacion said of homeless issues.
The police chief stressed that homelessness is not just a Manteca or San Joaquin County problem — it’s a national issue.
Obligacion believes the collaboration taking place between the city, government agencies and community organizations will one day serve as a model for other jurisdictions on how to improve homeless issues.
Critical to making inroads is the ability to strike a balance.
“There is a fine line between enabling and helping,” Kelly said.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org