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Quality of life for Mantecans, sheltered or not dependent on ultimate success of court filing
car wash fire
A fire damaged car wash on East Yosemite Avenue in Manteca is likely the handiwork of a homeless individual

Anyone want to take a wild guess about what segment of Manteca’s population the person responsible for the fire at the closed Showtime Car Wash on East Yosemite Avenue that caused $150,000 on Wednesday morning hails from?

Let’s look at the clues. Even before the car wash closed months ago it was taken over at night by the homeless. It is where a Manteca Police was grabbed in his genitals by a homeless person he tried to wake up more than a dozen times after responding to a call of a suspicious person.

After the car wash closed it was pressed into service as a homeless hotel, if you will.

Homeless were seen fleeing the car wash area after the fire became visible. The charred ruins included plenty of things the homeless cart around.

This isn’t the first unoccupied structure in Manteca that suffered fire damage at the hands of the homeless and it won’t be the last. Most fires the homeless are suspected to have started are either cooking or warning fires.

The Wednesday fire, though, is the least of Manteca’s homeless worries.

The 9th District Court of Appeals has basically upheld a lower court decision that will erode even further what tools Manteca and cities throughout California have to try and address serious public health and safety issues. The City of Manteca is among a growing number of jurisdictions joining a coalition that will file a statement with the U.S. Supreme Court in conjunction with the City of Boise in Idaho to hopefully convince the high court next month to agree to review the appellate court decision. 

The lower court ruling essentially says a city can’t impose camping restrictions and limit when sleeping can occur on public property — rules that apply to everyone regardless of their housing status — unless sheltered sleeping options are “practically available”. Speaking in non-jargon that means cities can’t enforce rules that prohibit camping on private property, camping in parks and other public venues or restrict hours when people can sleep in locations such as public sidewalks unless a homeless shelter has been made available.

Keep in mind the court is specifically granting the homeless exemption from such rules. And they are not talking about HOPE Family Shelters type of shelters with a structured program. They are talk about drop-in shelters, the type that more than a few note “if they build it they will come” in terms of attracting the homeless.

Whether that is indeed the case what will happen if a city is forced to build a drop-in shelter before they can enforce reasonable camping and sleeping restrictions for everyone that carves out reasonable exceptions for those who are sheltered or unsheltered, one thing is clear — it will undermine efforts  to help get the homeless off the streets.

Manteca has more than a two year track record that shows a coordinated effort led by specially assigned police officers can get the homeless sheltered, not on a temporary night-to-night basis, but for the long haul. They do this by building relationships while at the same time trying to dicourage wannabe Good Samaritans from enabling them by distributing things such as tents and umbrellas.

That may sound cruel, but it isn’t. Many of the upwards of 300 homeless the City of Manteca has had an active role in getting off the streets with the dedication of two police officers has only happened after not just a relationship was established  but primarily when the homeless grew tired of conditions.

Keep in mind the wide repertoire of services that are helping the former homeless in Manteca get back on their feet, land jobs, and to support themselves have been around long before the city stepped up to avoid costly lawsuits.

By having one viable option that the homeless can literally activate by using their cell phone to call one of the two officers, some homeless who have been on the street for years that patrol officers thought would only get off the street in a coroner van have done so using the city-funded MPD outreach that almost instantly connects with services they need to make it happen.

While some may argue that the Manteca program hasn’t been effective because there are still homeless, the truth is close to 300 people within the city have been taken off the streets with most remaining that way. Some were reunited with family with police making arrangements and securing private sector funds to cover the cost of bus, train, or airplane tickets. Most have been through efforts like Inner City Action.

So what is the danger with the 9th District Court of Appeals ruling not being reconsidered by the nation’s high court and ultimately overturned?

It will mean a city like Manteca would have to provide essentially a crutch for the homeless with a drop-in shelter if they want to be able to enforce camping and sleeping rules that at the end of the day are effective ways to address public health and safety issues running the gamut from defecating in public and tossing drug needles about to fires that get out of control that for the most part are started in buildings that require the homeless to trespass.

HOPE Family Shelter case worker Michelle Whitaker who is part of the city coordinated homeless outreach effort notes that the homeless get comfortable being homeless. That may sounds nuts to you and me but living on the street dealing with weather and all sorts of issues becomes the norm. It is easier and less trying to attempt to change things than continue a lifestyle that you’ve fallen into.

Whitaker isn’t talking gibberish. She was homeless and lived on the streets for seven years.

There is also no guarantee if a drop-in shelter was provided that a number of homeless would use it. Last winter in Denver, the media did stories about how a homeless shelter designed to provide people with a warm place to sleep had plenty of space because many homeless preferred living on the street. When a reporter asked why, the response from the homeless that eschewed the shelters was that they didn’t like the rules.

If the court ruling stands it opens up a rabbit’s hole. If a city like Manteca was ultimately forced to build a drop-in shelter for single adults in order to enforce camping and sleeping regulations that address a wide array of serious public health and safety concerns, what happens if the city opens a 200-bed shelter but there are still homeless on the streets? Does that mean camping and sleeping laws can’t be legally enforced if there aren’t enough bed spaces for the homeless who want to drop in for as night?

This is not a rhetorical question given Manteca’s official homeless count in January was pegged at 218.

A 200-bed shelter, by the way, is off the chart for a city the size of Manteca. What would likely happen if a shelter was built is the situation near St. Mary’s Dining Hall and adjoining shelter in Stockton where overflow homeless literally take over sidewalks on nearby streets.

That would mean Manteca — if the court ruling were to stand — in order to try to continue with a program that is effective would have to build a shelter and pay for operations that would in turn make things worse which ultimately means a program that is proven to work would have to be abandoned because the city wouldn’t be able to enforce camping and sleeping rules.

 There is a lot riding on the court filing.

If the effort fails to secure a high court review and ultimately having the lower court decisions overturned the quality of life for both sheltered and unsheltered residents in Manteca will deteriorate.

Somehow I don’t think that was the original objective of the litigants in the Boise case.