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The possible $9.1 million wake-up call and the search for a homeless solution
homeless moffat
Homeless encampments along the 120 Bypass eastbound right of way just west of Moffat Boulevard along the sound wall behind the Juniper and Tesoro apartment complexes.

When it was indicated during Tuesday’s council meeting that Caltrans was preparing for what seems like the 100th time to clear out homeless encampments along its right-of-way through Manteca, Councilman David Breitenbucher quipped that it was a good thing given the homeless appeared ready to put up the final wall on a makeshift duplex along a ledge on the 120 Bypass overpass of Moffat Boulevard.

That moment of levity came after a premature jolt of reality regarding the city’s bid to find a way to address the growing homeless problem popped up when the proverbial elephant in the room was briefly addressed — the high cost of simply obtaining the Qualex building and prepping it for use as a resource center and/or shelter for the homeless.

The real possibility that it could cost $9.1 million — a figure that is clearly arbitrary but is certainly within the ballpark based on what limited research staff has conducted so far — was like having a bucket of water thrown in your face.

And while City Manager Miranda Lutzow is absolutely right that it is too early to banter about numbers given the experts the council had staff hire to look at the Qualex building’s condition haven’t finished their work, it is actually a good thing that the council and citizens have a firm grasp that this isn’t going to be a cheap endeavor.

Tackling what is clearly the biggest issue with many people in Manteca is shaping up to be the equivalent of a political suicide mission for council members.

While Lutzow and city staff will certainly do everything possible to secure federal and state funding, people — including the council — have to have a strong command of reality. This is going to be a costly endeavor and perhaps more so because of making the Qualex site part of the solution.

However, it is still too early to write off the Qualex site.

That’s because Mayor Ben Cantu is right that no one wants a homeless shelter or a resource center anywhere near them yet they want the city to do something about the homeless. And it is a safe bet that people want it done with minimal expense.

Good luck with that one.

Councilman Gary Singh is also right in repeatedly reminding people that the homeless already are costing the city significant money. The city is easily spending close to $800,000 a year on homeless related issues. About $382,000 of that is for the salary— including overtime —and benefits of two community resource officers assigned to homeless, the city incurs daily costs from cleaning up parks of trash and feces the homeless leave behind, firefighters responding to emergency calls involving the homeless and police officers handling complaints about the homeless when a CRO is not available.

Much of that is opportunity cost in that city staff is already in place and being paid. But because of the extensive time homeless issues require it means something else doesn’t get done.

The reason the messes the homeless create haven’t completely buried segments of downtown and places like Library Park is the fact parks and recreation workers and solid waste staff remove the seeds of blight within hours of the sun rising.

Then there are the costs businesses incur cleaning up after the homeless whether it is defecation or trash left behind, property damage ranging from cut fences to setting warming fires that get out of control or from shoplifting losses.

The city also has to adhere to a settlement to a class action lawsuit the homeless filed against Manteca that they wisely didn’t fight. Every other city that ended up fighting such lawsuits have ended up losing and saddled with legal costs and payments that often exceed $1 million and still have to take steps similar to what Manteca is doing. The settlement meant Manteca was out of pocket less than $50,000 for costs directly related to the class action suit.

At the same time the hands of Manteca and every other jurisdiction within the 9th District Court of Appeals were effectively tied. They can’t go after illegal camping on public property that access to isn’t limited to everybody unless there are available shelter beds and the homeless refuse to taken advantage of them.

That brings us to retired Police Chief Dave Bricker who is correct on two points.

The first if you build a shelter or even a robust resource center you are likely going to become a magnet for the homeless from other nearby communities.  A regional approach is needed but not as long as you have people like Tracy Mayor Robert Rickman who is running to represent Manteca residents south of the 120 Bypass as a member of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors. Rickman believes the best way to address Tracy’s homeless issue is to give them bus tickets to Stockton. Rickman, of course, rationalizes that is where all the homeless services are which is true because elected leaders like himself don’t want to do the heavy lifting and come to grips you need to solve the problem within the framework of the law like it or not.

And while Manteca can ill afford to do nothing while cities in the area either don’t admit they have a homeless problem let alone come together to work on it, Bricker’s second point can’t be ignored even by those on the council such as Mayor Cantu who is insistent a drop-in shelter is essential. Bricker notes that the biggest draw for building a shelter with “adequate” beds to be able to legally enforce all sorts of laws that were put in place to address issues caused by the homeless is also arguably its biggest drawback.

Given the bed threshold is established by the once-every-two years point in time count of the homeless in a community, the city could very easily sink millions into a shelter and render it useless as a way of combatting homeless issues because a new count shows the official homeless to have grown.

It is also clear simply jailing the homeless when you can is about as effective as a deterrent to them repeating behavior the community deems is detrimental to the quality of life as using toilet tissue to create a jug to carry water.

The council is not dodging the challenge, at least not yet.

But given their response to community reaction to city staff recommendation the city invest $172,000 on the annual salary and benefits of a homeless program manager, it is abundantly clear going forward with the Qualex proposal not because of its location as much as its potential cost will not end well.

Spend anywhere near $9.1 million on a homeless solution at the Qualex site and the political reaction will make a shark feeding frenzy seem like a low-key event in comparison.

The worst part is if you were being realistic when it comes to how you measure whatever Manteca homeless solution goes forward arguably the best end result you can hope for is that the city’s homeless population stays numerically flat as the city grows.

Singh may have started a stir by dragging out a ballpark cost estimate from staff ahead of the final consultant’s study being completed. That said if everyone is not going into this with their eyes wide open and the understanding the city is going to have to open the collective wallets of taxpayers relatively wide to do so the effort is not going to get very far.