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Can the Council defuse ticking political time bomb & address homeless issues?
kmart homeless

Get ready for what has all the markings of  becoming one of the  most —  if not the most — unpopular decision in the annals of Manteca City Council politics.

On Tuesday, the City Council is poised to take the next step to address an issue that has perplexed and stymied so-called experts and elected leaders across the nation. They are going to try and elevate Manteca’s game in dealing with homeless issues. It is definitely not a self-serving move politically for any of the five council members although not to do something certainly would be.

The end game is not to solve the problem as that would be the proclamation only a fool would make. The realistic goal is to improve the situation or at least prevent it from getting progressively worse.

What they are considering is establishment of a navigation center for the homeless. It is a homeless shelter with all the attendant services needed to address basic needs as well as provide the framework of services and interaction needed to get people off the streets of Manteca. Call it a one-stop holistic approach or, if you want to be a tad flippant, a homeless mall.

If the council adopts the navigation model as it is envisioned that would mean it would not be for drop-ins but for the homeless who are selected and referred by an outreach team. The homeless also have to access the navigation center on their own accord. The shelter portion needs to be able to accommodate 218 homeless individuals in order to pass muster with the courts so Manteca can employ law enforcement in such a manner to prevent the spread of what might best be described as homeless blight and actually reduce it.

The idea in itself isn’t the problem although there will be those who will object to it for reasons that should be respected. But it should be noted this is arguably the most pragmatic approach the city can make given the parameters they must work within under the law and the courts.

The three biggest bombshells will be the location, expense, and the fears of whether the ongoing operation will meet reasonable expectations.

No one in their right mind wants anything that resembles a homeless shelter next door. The concerns are endless: There is the proven potential for blight, crime, drop in property values, and homeless either being served or not be served essentially taking over the neighborhood.

HOPE Ministries has a 25-year record of effectively avoiding all of those problems. It can be argued they have actually stopped and reversed blight in the three properties they own and operate. Keep in mind not only are they not a drop-in shelter and the homeless have to pass what is basically a litmus test to get in but they have to either be traditional families that are intact or mothers with children 12 and under. You could argue that those two categories of homeless have a much higher desire — and as a result commitment — to getting off the streets for good. HOPE Shelter thanks to its available services has a success rate of getting families off the street on a permanent basis in excess of 70 percent making it one of the most successful endeavors of its kind in the region.

The City Council on Tuesday, assuming they have the courage and the moxie to keep going forward, are being asked to decide between two to three sites of eight reviewed by staff for what is being called “extreme vetting” to determine the absolute best possible fit. Once that happens the final step would be picking a site and running with it.

As for the navigation concept, it is clearly a much more effective strategy for several reasons. It offers the city and ultimately the community much better control. It also avoids the reality that the bare minimum approach to meet the court’s thresholds to allow Manteca to stop homeless blight from growing and to actually work on reversing it — establishing a 218-bed drop-in shelter for the homeless — will make the situation worse.

The next big issue will be the cost. As things stand now, the city’s concept is to try and put together a coalition of non-profits and other agencies to oversee and operate a navigation center. It will require ongoing support by the city’s taxpayers. That is likely to be in the form of utilities — water, sewer, and power — at the very least.

But before it gets to that point the city will have to cough up big dollars to purchase and remodel whatever site is ultimately selected.

The site that seems the most ideal for development of a navigation center by those involved in the initial round of vetting various locations — the 107,409-square-foot former Kmart building at 225 Northgate Drive — would not be a cheap proposition.

It was purchased in 2018. Based on the sale price it has a market value of $6.5 million according to the San Joaquin County Assessor’s Office. That means for all practical purposes it would cost $7 million or so to buy the building.

Leasing in the long-run would not be much better and would likely be worse. That’s because before it was bought, Kmart corporation paid $401,218 a year to lease the space in 2017 plus paid attendant property taxes.

The city may indeed be looking at leasing just only part of the space. That would require a minimum 20,000 square feet for the navigation center that likely would be enough space to accommodate 218 beds in a barracks style setting. Assume the real space needs for Manteca may be double given they want he navigation center to also meet the threshold for the court in terms of available bed space for a shelter. Based on commercial lease rates in Manteca and the fact the owner has a $71,000 annual tax bill not to mention the need to get a return and likely pay off debt even to lease roughly a third of the structure is likely to be in the neighborhood of $400,000 a year. Toss in remodeling inside as well as securing the outside parking lot and you could easily add $1 million to the tab. Within 10 years including lease increases you could easily drop $5 million. In the long haul it would be smarter to buy which —once you toss in remodeling — will represent a cost upfront that would easily exceed $8 million.

The cost is almost on par as being as explosive of an issue as the location.

Of course other sites that are not as ideal but would work best for what the city has in mind — the Qualex building as well as the structure at 1140 Bessemer Avenue that’s in the Manteca Industrial Park as well — could likely be purchased for $1.6 million plus have an additional $1 million or so in work that would needed to be done.

Then there is the issue of ongoing operations. Once the council makes the ultimate decision on what site to go with — if they get that far — they need to set in place an advisory board that involves all of the immediate stakeholders including nearby residents/tenants and property owners to assure impacts and issues with surrounding areas are addressed as robustly as possible in not just the design but also the ongoing operation.

There may be no fireworks Tuesday given it will be the first cut but once the focus shifts to a final pick things will heat up just in time for the 2020 council election.

A self-serving elected official would avoid having such an undertaking take place in the middle of a campaign. That in itself underscores the seriousness and pragmatic approach being taken.