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The fear of helping the homeless
Dennis Wyatt

Homelessness is not a 21st century phenomenon. Ever since man progressed to the point of not being nomadic, there have been people without permanent shelter over their heads.

This is an important point as people keep trying to skew the debate by saying we need to build more housing to solve the problem. That’s akin to saying the solution to reducing the bank robbery rate is to give those prone to commit such crimes $20,000 a year tax free.

What needs to be done is to address the causes of homelessness to give people the tools and the path to keeping a shelter over their heads. Until you address substance abuse, mental issues, money management, defiance as in wanting to play by their own rules, and outright criminal behavior you won’t change much. 

Having spent a number of years in Roseville where Southern Pacific Railroad had a major marshaling yard, there were so many “homeless” back when that city had 70,000 residents that it makes Manteca seem to have none in comparison. They weren’t called homeless. They were hobos and transients. And while some like today chose the nomadic lifestyle that Roger Miller immortalized in his song “King of the Road”, most abused alcohol and drugs and more than a few were certifiable crazy.

During the period I was city editor at The Press-Tribune, Mike Durant who was the managing editor and I convinced Publisher Bill James to let reporter Troy Swauger spend a week living 24/7 as a transient. After being warned if anything happened to Troy we’d no longer be employed, Troy set about prepping for the role by not shaving or grooming for a week as well as hitting an Army surplus store for a new wardrobe.

The end result was a story that covered four solid pages with nothing but type. It was an eye opener for many as it detailed their lifestyle that included most of them carrying a weapon of some sort to defend themselves primarily against other homeless. There were also unwritten rules you followed if you hanged around certain transient groups or shared an encampment. They were often enforced with banishment and, if need be, fists.

Perhaps the biggest eye popper was how many encampments were hidden among the creeks, vacant fields, empty building, and even gullies that crisscrossed Roseville’s landscape. The story shattered one assumption many people had. The “hobos” weren’t all just passing by and staying a few days before heading on their way to another place. A rather large percentage had some sort of tie to Roseville with a number flying below the proverbial radar for more than a year.

The transients that fall into that category gravitated and stayed because they had some history in Roseville whether it was growing up or had a home there before they became homeless.

The same dynamics are at work today in Manteca and elsewhere. There are turfs, so to speak, that longtime homeless have established. The reasons they are on the street are no different in general terms than they were for the homeless in Roseville back in 1987.

Just like Roseville, many of Manteca homeless have a connection to the community whether it was being raised here, family that moved here, or they lived here prior to becoming homeless. Yes there are those passing through who may stay a week or a few months before moving on.

Why this is important to understand is an underlying fear some have if Manteca steps up its effort to address homeless issues much more, we will become a magnet to draw the homeless from nearby cities.

It is doubtful anything short of a full-scale single adult drop-in shelter will be a magnet. You will still get the turnover of homeless passing through. 

The key, as cruel as it may sound, is to make sure the homeless aren’t comfortable as far as living conditions go. The non-profits that deal 24/7 with the homeless were absolutely correct in encouraging the Manteca Police Department to fashion their homeless effort now in place in the manner that they did.

The reason is painfully obvious. The services have always been there. The big difference is the outreach to nudge them toward those services was spotty at best instead of being consistent as it is today. People are not going to come out of their comfort zone — including the homeless — unless things become intolerable. Dealing with rain without benefit of cover, sleeping in bone chilling fog, or constantly having to be on the move loses its charm after a while. It is why eventually — with the firm and respectful approach Manteca Police use — more than 220 homeless in over two years have stepped up to start rehab treatment or to be reunited with family that is willing to take them in.

The local non-profits trying to address the homeless issues to make things better in Manteca for the unsheltered and sheltered alike can use additional funding to further chip away at homeless issues.

A collaborative effort between the non-profits seeks one-time state funds. It will require Manteca’s elected leaders to declare an emergency housing crisis so they can apply for the money before the upcoming late November deadline.

The odds of the modest efforts they’ve outlined — none come even close to being a full-scale single adult shelter solution that in many communities create more problems than they solve — luring homeless from Tracy, Stockton, Modesto or even the Bay Area is minuscule at best.