Manteca is living on borrowed time.
Sooner or later someone — a homeless person, a firefighter, or a child sleeping — is going to die as the result of a homeless warming fire in a vacant or partially burned structure that gets out of control.
Last decade when the homeless were concentrated on the Moffat Boulevard corridor and no less than six fires broke out in three different buildings that have since been razed, there was one blaze where witnesses believed there were homeless still inside.
Manteca firefighters made entry shortly before the fire took a turn for the worst. The good news: There were no homeless trapped inside and firefighters got out unscathed.
Fast forward to last year when a mid-summer fire in the earlier hours of the morning broke out in a Central Manteca home that already had been gutted by a fire and had homeless who had removed boards to use the house as a crash pad. By the time it got noticed, it was fully involved. Firefighters arrived just in time to avoid the fire from spreading to nearby homes occupied by young families.
Partially burned out or long-term vacant structures are magnets for the homeless. That should not surprise anyone. They also constitute blight hung around the community’s collective neck like an albatross.
They are also tie up police resources.
And it has everything to do with property owners not meeting the city’s lawful requirement for basic property maintenance and essentially creating living spaces for the homeless.
It’s laughable, in a way, that city leaders are adamant that a homeless shelter per se for overnight sleeping will never be in the cards for Manteca because, to borrow jargon, “if you build it, they will come.”
It’s laughable because the numerous partially burned and long-term vacant and unmaintained buildings Manteca has allowed to linger over the years were and are de facto homeless shelters.
Dozens were living in the infamous two-story Sycamore Arms when it burned going on three years ago in downtown Manteca. They still come and go although in smaller numbers.
Check police logs and see how many times in the last four years police have been called to the Sycamore Arms since it was vacated and then burned.
Ask residents next to the Gordon property on the Union Road how it functioned like a cheap motel for homeless — a low budget affair given it had no rent with the basic accommodations the homeless seek such as a roof over their head, a place to store their stuff, and the ability to start a fire to cook food or stay warm. Over the years there were fires that got a bit out of control that came close to torching dry weeds and threatening nearby homes. Ask neighbors how many homeless were guests at any given time at the Gordon property. Their answers will stun you.
It is a clear that partially burned out buildings and long-term vacant structures attract the homeless just like what civic leaders fear a homeless shelter for single adults would do.
By not going after such properties in a reasonable time to force deficiencies to be addressed the City of Manteca has allowed a number of illegal homeless shelters to operate within the city.
What makes it worse is the city has all of the tools in place to undo the damage these renegade structures cause the community and to prevent the problem from expanding. Some might say they lack courage, heart or brains. But the truth is they lack accountability.
It’s easy to understand how it happens. Manteca is a city of 81,500 people with a lot of pressing problems. And just like the fire department going from one vacant building fire to another, those running the city go from putting out one proverbial fire to putting out another. It is how government operates when you’re not flush or rolling in the revenue.
So what’s the solution? The City Council needs to create accountability and make public health and safety an absolute top priority by deploying proactive legal measures at the city’s disposal.
First and foremost a “watch” list of partially burned and long-term vacant buildings throughout the city needs to be established. Perhaps the fire marshal could be charged with the task.
Once the list is formed it needs to be updated at least quarterly.
The list needs to include what steps can or have been taken, contacts with property owners, and progress that is or us isn’t being made plus how much time is left under city ordinances for action to be taken. That list needs to be monitored by the City Council to keep efforts on track.
It also needs to go to the city’s economic development specialist to see if there is anyway the property owner can be assisted in securing a tenant in the case of vacant non-residential buildings.
The process will require money for legal and abatement expenses as the city must be willing to use the hammer if all else fails within a reasonable time frame established by city ordinance. Keep in mind the city has the ability to place a lien against property. Allowing the economic revitalization fund to be tapped for this purpose makes sense given it was set up on the premise of doing what the redevelopment agency did which is to fight blight and spur economic development.
Addressing problems with fire damaged structures that aren’t repaired and long-term vacant buildings is a plus on a number of levels. It is a workable solution for addressing homeless concerns, it tackles blight, works on health and safety issues and ultimately promotes economic development.
IN SATURDAY’S BULLETIN: Manteca needs to consider “signs” that will help reduce homeless concerns.