The Merced City Council opened up a three-part series of Town Hall meetings this week, starting with one downtown at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center on Tuesday night.
The event was well-attended, and the input, comments and criticisms voiced by community members were mostly underscored with positivity and encouragement.
Indeed, it was a public testimony that revealed Merced is blessed with residents who are engaged, committed and looking forward to a better tomorrow.
Two other Town Halls were to be held at Rivera School on Wednesday night, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and on Thursday night, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Tenaya School.
Homelessness, a shortage of housing, and police-community relations were among the top issues of conversation at the Arts Center.
“Where will they go?” asked resident Julene Cook, referring to the tent dwellers who were being removed by Merced Police officers this week from a growing encampment along Highway 59 and Santa Fe near the edge of town. That’s in and around the same location where a small “Tent City” was dismantled nearly a decade ago.
Dr. Salvador Sandoval, a longtime homeless advocate, stood up and said: “The problem is homelessness — not the homeless. I encourage the City Council to look at the issue in a comprehensive way. Our housing stock is poor. People are being evicted because of hiked-up rents. Many are on a fixed income. … The city’s No-Camping Ordinance makes it criminal to be homeless. It puts police officers in a position where they are flushing out people around the creeks where they are camping out because they have no other place to go. These same people end up with warrants, and pretty soon, they are unemployable. It creates a vicious cycle.”
Sandoval added that UC Merced is inadvertently contributing to the housing shortage problem, and actually harming low-income residents.
His wife, Gloria Sandoval, made the same case, hinting that new housing in north Merced and new market-rate apartments downtown will end up catering to students and professors, not everyday, struggling Mercedians.
“We are becoming a city of haves and have nots,” she told the council. “You hear that UC Merced is trying to attract another 10,000 students, but yet their 2020 Plan has a total of 1,700 beds that are going to be considered — that’s a huge difference … I foresee there is going to be a greater displacement of people from their homes. … I really believe we are in an emergency situation in Merced.”
Katherine Sharik said she was a grad student who traveled from the opposite side of the country to study in Merced, and despite trying to plan the move, she arrived without a place to stay.
“I was looking, but there were no rentals available,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue of where I was going to stay, but then I got totally lucky. There happened to be one vacancy, in this one complex, that was within reasonable affordability. I’m staying with it now because I’m afraid to budge. … Yes I receive assistance as a grad student, but that doesn’t help me rent a house to myself. I would have to go back to finding roommates. And now even the apartment rents are going up. It’s quite unaffordable for people in academia on the student side.”
Norma Cardona, who works for the Merced Union High School District overseeing programs for students who are experiencing homelessness and youth in foster care, and also serves on the Continuum of Care board, noted that she has seen families “doubling or tripling up” — up to 13 people — living in a two-bedroom home.
“I know that your slogan for Merced is “City On The Rise,” and it may be for middle class and high-income residents, but what is happening to our low-income residents?” she asked the council.
Cardona said the Continuum of Care’s Homeless Youth Committee planned and executed a Youth Count along with the Point-in-Time Count where they tailored efforts specifically for youth experiencing and suffering from homelessness and displacement. The committee hopes to have the report out soon on those numbers, she said.
On a different, but related note, Cardona explained later to the Times that the Merced Union High School District has identified and served 61 unaccompanied displaced youth during this school year alone.
Her friend, Martha Armas, took to the Town Hall podium and said she and other community organizers are planning a Youth Homeless Connect event to mirror an existing service for adults, in an effort to save the lives and futures of these kids, and bring about awareness of their plight.
The Times counted five occasions during the Town Hall when people urged the City Council and staff to make efforts to enhance and improve the relationship between the Police Department and the community. Some praised the overall drop in crime in the city, according to recent statistics. Some commented on the need for residents to feel more safe around law enforcement. Others asked for the creation of a community panel to assist the Police Chief in maintaining a constructive dialogue with the public.
Eli Sachs, a young registered nurse, stood up and said he was involved in the local LGBTQ Alliance group, and has been coordinating a transgender support group for the past month.
“I wanted to say that I’m horrified by some of the stories I have heard already,” he said, “particularly with high school students who have experienced violence on campus in Merced County schools. They have gone to campus security and have been dismissed and not believed. Teachers are refusing to call transgender students by their name, or outing transgender students in a classroom full of people — so that’s disclosing their ‘trans’ status in front of their classmates which is confidential health information, and it’s also a huge violation. … It’s only been a couple of weeks and I have heard these stories. I have also heard from Alliance board members who say they have gone to MCOE [Merced County Office of Education] with some of these concerns in the past, and have been dismissed.”
Aubrey Johnson, a recent college grad, just moved back to Merced and she was concerned about safety and improvements on the Bear Creek bike path.
“It is really uneven, and I was on it late at night, and I got scared and hurried up to get home,” she said. “There are a lot of homeless camping out … and there’s not a lot of lighting.”
And there was a heartwarming moment when Adam Gonzalez got up to speak. He is a crew member in the Restore Jobs employment program for Merced residents who were previously homeless or incarcerated, and/or suffering from addiction.
“Restore Merced is working to guide me in the right direction to obtain a good job so I can grow and be able to provide for my family,” Gonzalez told the council. “It’s also given me the opportunity to give back to my community because in my addiction, i have done a lot of destruction to the community. … Now I can call myself a productive member of the community. I can say I’m a role model to the people around me, and to my kids. Through Restore Merced, there is hope to restore myself and my future.”
Merced leaders say the results of the Town Hall meetings are used to develop priorities that guide the development of the annual city budget.
More to come on this and more.
This story was updated on March 12 to correct a comment on homeless youth data that was wrongly attributed to the work being conducted by the Merced County’s Continuum of Care.