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Is it better having homeless hanging out at Starbucks or getting them off streets?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Outside of the West Yosemite Avenue at Highway 99 Starbucks late Sunday afternoon was one of Manteca’s homeless.

He was catching some ZZZs seated on the patio chairs while his worldly belongings were leaning against the wall.

He is one of the city’s most high profile homeless in that he often panhandles. Contrary to popular belief panhandling isn’t a daily activity for most homeless. If it were they’d be between 100 and 200 people flying  signs asking for money or — as one couple does — holding a sign telling the world they “need weed.”

Whether he was outside Starbucks because of the coffee store chain’s open door policy for the homeless — or anyone for that matter — to avail themselves of their premises including bathrooms whether they are paying customers or not, I do not know.

What I do know is the homeless man in question is homegrown. He’s been off and on the streets of Manteca now for the better part of 20 years. I am not privy to his entire backstory. I chatted with him at length — if about two minutes qualifies for such as designation — three years ago. 

I asked why he was on the street knowing full well that his family had grown frustrated with him over the years and that he had some condition that allowed him to receive disability payments. Whatever the condition, it hasn’t stopped him occasionally from taking on jobs here and there holding signs at corners like the ones used when stores are staging going out of business sales.

Before I go on I’ve never seen him be aggressive or make anyone uncomfortable. He’s probably far from being a major blimp on law enforcement’s radar. He can come across as downright pleasant while most of the time staying reasonably presentable.

During the brief conversation — if you can call it that given he’s not exactly a talker — he answered “the” question: Why was he on the street if he had a place to go? His answer: “I don’t like being told what to do.”

I came across him again late Tuesday morning as I was jogging back from In Shape. This time he was slumped against the sound wall along Yosemite Avenue just before Powers Avenue with his stuff next to him.

I said “hi” as I usually do when I pass anyone — homeless or not. He said nothing as he looked straight ahead with his signature empty stare I’ve seen countless times.

Why this particular homeless individual is important is because he is one of the many Cybil-style faces of the homeless in Manteca. Each category or subgroup of faces has different reasons or attitudes that have gotten them on the streets. But he shares a common thread many have. He’s not ready to come off the streets.

That is abundantly clear as he has apparently resisted the efforts of the Manteca Police Department for the past 2½ years to connect him up with people willing to help him to not be homeless. Why does he resist? It might just be that he told the truth is that he doesn’t like being told what to do which may mean a lot of things from how he conducts himself while he has lived with others or perhaps a substance abuse issue or a refusal to take medication that can help him.

I suspect the two Manteca Police officers assigned to dealing with homeless issues have a better idea than I do since they likely come across him more often on a one-to-one basis as opposed of me just jogging or passing by. And while they may have established a relationship of sorts it isn’t enough to move him in the direction of saying he is ready to get off the street and accept help and — I assume in his case — follow rules.

Michelle Whitaker, who is an outreach worker with HOPE Family Shelters who earned her credentials as an expert on the subject of homelessness thanks to the seven years she spent living on Manteca’s streets, will tell you a lot of homeless are “in a comfort zone” making it psychologically challenging to get off the streets. Even though it can be miserable at times it’s not miserable enough given it is what they are used to doing day in and day out as opposed to taking the steps outside of their comfort zone that is needed to leave the streets.

That may sound counterintuitive but if you think about it you will understand the logic even though you and I will think it is a tad on the wrapped side.

It is behind that observation that two things have worked in Manteca.

Police have discouraged people from dropping off tents, sleeping bags and umbrellas in the cold and rainy season to the homeless as it takes enough edge of their being miserable under such conditions to soldier on in the homeless rut. More than a few of the 240 people during the past 30 months the effort of the Manteca Police Department has gotten homeless off the street has paid off because those that ended up accepting help finally had enough.

The other approach is what Inner City Action and other endeavors like them do. They build up relationships and trust just like the Manteca police assigned to the homeless detail do. The big difference is the contacts are a bit more intense and can be a lot more frequent.

The ongoing program they operate is not a drop in when you want for food and shelter. You have to be ready to be helped. There’s a huge difference.

In either approach, some will argue it simply goes after the low hanging fruit. It’s a good but incomplete analogy. The police effort that relies on a network of services including Inner City goes after all of the proverbial fruit but ends up snagging the lowest hanging of that fruit on sort of a drive by basis. Inner City does as well but with a physical location in one spot they have a chance of pulling in fruit hanging a little bit higher up the tree.

At the same time just like with grapefruit trees that seem to come back with bigger crops year after year, so do the ranks of homeless on the streets.

Whether the Qualex site will fly as the solution for establishing a homeless resource center in Manteca has yet to be seen. The idea hasn’t germinated yet as a seed let alone sprouted.

City Manager Tim Ogden in his due diligence that he absolutely is correct on doing as he is paid to look out for the City of Manteca as a whole has made it clear there are a lot of obstacles to climb including issues involving the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian signals along Industrial Park Drive where Qualex is located. The street also happens to be a SJAA truck route.

Even though you might wonder why such concerns didn’t pop up when the city approved a parking lot for 150 trucks just down the street across the satellite post office by requiring sidewalks there for the people — of whom the vast majority are sheltered — who have been walking through the industrial park on the SJAA truck route since the road extension was completed 12 plus years ago, it does illustrate what anyone who is trying to open a more robust homeless resource center is up against unless they plop it down in an existing building in a commercial district possibly at the edge of a neighborhood.

The homeless aren’t going away and a drop-in shelter is definitely not an answer.

The one thing that has improved the situation and can keep it from getting worse and even potentially improve it more is making resources available at a set location on a consistent basis. 

But whether that will ever happen as a solution depends a lot on how far the City Council is willing to pursue the idea.