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San Joaquin County DA is a realist while dealing with ‘those people’ aka homeless

It was just before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

One of “those people” — a homeless woman who appeared to be well into her 60s although looks can be deceiving after years on the street — was settling in for the night next door to the East Yosemite Avenue 7-Eleven.

She was seated on the sidewalk against a panel window of “A Perfect Tan” tanning salon below a poster of a young woman wearing tight jeans, a bikini top, and cowboy hat beneath the words “look good, feel good.” 

The woman, who obviously didn’t need to work on her tan, took a swig of water from a used label-less Gatorade bottle before pulling up a light dirty blanket to protect against the cool evening breeze before placing her head against a pile of clothes.

Tori Verber Salazar has heard the words “those people” more than once by angry people to describe the homeless such as the woman in front of A Perfect Tan.

The words typically are uttered dripping with disdain or at least a mega-size helping of disgust.

Salazar as the district attorney is the linchpin of the San Joaquin County criminal justice system. While she’ll be the first to tell you what keeps law and order day-to-day are the men and women of law enforcement, judges, correction officers, jurors, as well as parole and probation officers it falls on her to serve as the gatekeeper, if you will.

On one hand her office is presented with a wide array of criminal cases running the gamut from murder, rape, and human trafficking to public intoxication and trespassing. There are laws she must follow. She doesn’t get to decide guilt or innocence. That’s up to a judge and jury. The parameters of the penalty for the guilty are established by the state. Then there is the issue of limited resources her office has to prosecute crime. The best she can hope for is for her dedicated staff to successfully prosecute the guilty and to get the penalty that fits their crime.

It is obvious that Verber Salazar can’t pursue every case as if she’s going after mob hit man Whitey Bulgar. She is also obligated to help make the streets safer for the law-abiding citizens of this county.

If she did what many who refer to the homeless as “those people” want her to do, the county and its seven cities would not effectively reduce quality of life crimes and non-criminal irritants that are attributed to the homeless. Taxpayers would also be out of a lot of money for nothing. 

To prosecute a homeless individual for misdemeanor trespassing while camping illegally costs a minimum of $2,000 if it is done to the fullest extent of the law from their arrest and booking to court appearance. Given that could easily take several months, there is little doubt the homeless would likely recommit the same crime at least 60 times before they appear in court given they have to sleep somewhere. And, if they are convicted, not only will they continue to break the law but they won’t be able to pay the $100 maximum fine.

There are some who say bypass the courts and simply have officers take them to either the city limits or drive them over to the next town. You will note neighboring jurisdictions to Manteca that years ago used to do just that and even were captured once on video doing so as they let a homeless individual out of a marked unit at Austin Road and Moffat Boulevard no longer do so. In all likelihood they were motivated to be a temporary taxi service by individuals who said they’d get out of their hair if they could get to Manteca. But since Manteca had its close call with a class action lawsuit in how they dealt with homeless issues that cost them only $60,000 providing they pursue solutions they are now working on instead of what are typically multi-million dollar settlements that do nothing to address the problem, area jurisdictions are embracing the truth — being homeless is not a crime.

That said every homeless individual commits quality of life crimes to survive while some are responsible for much more grating crimes against society that don’t exactly rise to the level of felonies but do deteriorate the quality of life.

How Verber Salazar views the words “those people” used to describe homeless also reflects the perception of many front-line law enforcement officers that are on the streets day in and day out.

While some see “those people” as worthless individuals that should be kicked down the road, locked up, and punished, Verber Salazar and law enforcement officers see something else. They see someone’s father, mother, brother or sister. Beneath the haze of substance abuse and mental illness that lead many to the streets, Verber Salazar and many peace officers see people. The same goes for those on the street due to financial reasons or because of a case of extreme stubbornness that keeps them from following rules of others who have tried to offer them a roof over their heads. And there are complete jerks out there. That said it is not illegal to be a jerk just like it is not illegal to be homeless.

Verber Salazar — just like those wearing a badge —does not let her empathy cloud her judgment.

She also doesn’t let frustration or anger color her decision making process when it comes to prosecuting crimes. She stays within the framework of the law and makes judgments based on the facts.

And when it comes to crimes committed by the homeless it is clear rounding them up for low level offenses, booking them, releasing them, prosecuting them, the court slapping them with fines they can’t pay, and doing the same thing over and over again with the same results is part insanity, part farce, ineffective and a complete waste of resources and tax dollars.

It is why Verber Salazar is among those who believe the most effective way to address homeless issues is for law enforcement, when they can, to work in a partnership with non-profit services to get individuals off the street. At the same time those on the streets that create the most problems and commit offenses that actively interfere with the life of law-abiding citizens as well as other homeless to be targeted for focused enforcement. Verber Salazar said such individuals are given a choice. Either they can work toward getting off the streets and get help in doing so or they will end up in jail and possibly prison as her office will work with law enforcement that arrest them for repeated crimes that make them candidates for aggressive prosecution that can lead to incarceration.

No one is saying build shelters for the homeless  where they can come and go at will and continue populating parks, freeway right-of-of-way, orchards, vacant building, river banks as well as nooks and crannies between buildings or use mature landscaping as a cover.

But working to reduce the ranks of the homeless such as Manteca Police has done with Inner City Action and other agencies for now close to three years make a lot more sense than going around in circles like a deranged feline trying to catch its tail.

Verber Salazar gets it. She — just like police — deal with the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good guys and bad guys are defined by actions involving choice. The ugly — most homeless as many people perceive them to be — may not reflect what we want them to be as a society but they certainly aren’t bad guys simply because of how they appear to us.

The homeless problem is never going to go away.

But with an approach such as Manteca Police has been taking the situation can be made more tolerable, stopped from exploding further, and actually be improved somewhat.

It is not the absolute answer but in the scheme of things it is much more effective and less costly than playing catch and release.