Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced shelter, officials working to solve homeless issues

AGAINST THE WIND: A column by Jonathan Whitaker

Merced County Times Editor Jonathan Whitaker.
Merced County Times Editor Jonathan Whitaker.

Plans to build a navigation center in Merced, and significant new investment into a regional homeless strategy came in the form of welcome news when they were unveiled recently for a community seriously concerned about homelessness.

In fact, according to recent polls, homelessness is the No. 1 concern among Merced residents from teens to seniors.
But city and county officials still have to build that new center — which will include a 24/7 shelter with the capacity of nearly 200 beds — and also figure out operational plans to sustain the effort across the county.

In the meantime, there are other city and county efforts going on inside Merced that residents may not be aware of, and the impacts are helping community partners prepare for the future.

I recently attended a meeting at the Merced County Community Action Agency, which runs the existing D Street Shelter. Public safety and social service representatives were present to discuss solutions to tackle encampments in and around town.

More than six months ago, the shelter was radically changed from an overnight only operation to a 24/7 navigation center with 60 beds, modeled after ones in San Francisco. Clients are allowed to come and go throughout the day. They are offered three meals a day, laundry, and showers. They are also provided with case management services to address any barriers that may prevent them from exiting homelessness into housing.

Clients are not required to be sober as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others. The idea is that it’s better for them to “sleep it off” in the shelter than be on the street.

Couples or partners entering the shelter can stay together with adjoining beds.

No registered sex offender can enter the shelter due to the possible presence of children.

Large bins with locks are available for the storage of personal property. Officials are still working on the “pets component” which would provide kennels and other areas for the beloved companions of shelter clients. There are health and safety issues concerning animals at the shelter that still have to be resolved.

Clients can stay for 90 days, with extensions for those who are actively seeking housing options. There are 21 staff members assigned to the shelter, with a minimum of two workers and a case manager on any given shift.

Of the 60 beds, 10 are given priority to people who have been displaced after cleanups of illegal encampments with proper legal notice. Vans are also available to pick up personal belongings for transport to the shelter.

“Right now people are being put in our shelter, but there is not a lot of community services being poured into our shelter to house these folks,” says Lucas J. Brown, the director of Housing & Community Services for the MCCAA. “That’s just the truth of the matter. We are willing to open our doors, but we also need all community partners to come in and help exit these people from the shelter. The quicker you are exiting people, the more beds become available. Unfortunately housing is difficult, but it’s not impossible.”

Individuals or groups who want to donate food, clothing and other items, and / or volunteer time to help out at the D Street Navigation Center, call Renee at 947-8386 or Esmerelda at 725-8188.

Outreach on streets
Several people at the meeting told me that cleanups of small encampments throughoutMerced are happening on a daily basis. Despite public concerns about new state laws that are said to make it harder to remove encampments when there are no shelter beds available, officials say they are enforcing laws and cleaning up unsafe areas with plenty of notification, outreach and documentation.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton gave a special presentation on a pilot diversion program she helped develop for Turlock
where she worked from 2008 to 2018. The strategy offers individuals who have been issued a citation for a municipal code violation to voluntarily opt into an alternative to the court process. The goal is to reduce the occurrence of the violation, and connect people with services.

Norton said the program allowed her to actually connect with some of the more repeat offenders. She knew them by name, and spent time talking to them.

“In my mind, some of these quality of life crimes are not going to be solved through the criminal justice system,” she said. “The crime is kind of a symptom of an underlying issue — drug addiction, mental health issues, etc.”

The program was divided into “Informal Diversion” and “Formal Diversion.” Informal diversion was available to first-time offenders. It allowed for a dismissal of the citation if an offender performed 16 hours of voluntary community service, and commit no further violations for six consecutive months. In the formal diversion, a person with two or more violations would be referred to a Diversion Case Manager, and be required to perform 32 hours of community service and commit no further violations for 12 straight months.

“Obviously law enforcement has other things to do, and other calls to go out on, so if we could reduce the contacts with these people, and get them connected to services, we thought that would be a better way to address the underlying social issues,” she said. “There’s no way the population we are talking about has the ability to pay fines. That’s pointless. But they do have time, and they do have the ability to give back to the community.”

According to data compiled in the Turlock program from 2015 to 2016, there were 311 quality of life violations with 175 violators. The infractions included unlawful public camping, shopping cart possession, public consumption of alcohol, in park after hours, unlawful public storage, unlawful entry of waste container, dog off leash in park, and bicycle riding violations.

“We had a zero tolerance policy for any criminal activity occurring in the parks,” Norton pointed out.

The data showed that the diversion program helped reduced the number of repeat violations, including among those loiterers who were not homeless. And interestingly, among those 175 individuals with violations, only 11 of them had four or more violations in the year-long study.

“There is a small segment of the population that are habitual offenders,” Norton said, “and those are the individuals who require more focused efforts and a higher level of service.”

She also stressed that success among these individuals should not be measured by reaching “no violations.”
“Success is: Are you going to your counseling services? Did you get an ID card? Did you get your SSI card? Did you get the monetary benefits that maybe you are entitled to?”

After accepting the city attorney position in Merced last year, Norton said she asked Merced’s police chief to give her a list of offenders with the most repeat “quality of life” violations, and he gave her 25 names. She told him to narrow it down to the Top 10.

At the meeting Norton read off the names on the list. Then she acknowledged that most of the people in the room probably knew all of the people mentioned.

Said Norton: “We are all having contact with the same individuals, but are we doing it in a holistic way?” she asked. Are we marshalling our resources together, and do we have a path toward restoration instead of incarceration?”

Losing ground?
I’m still hearing from fed-up homeowners who are concerned about homeless issues and code violations in the city of Merced. The other day, I spoke with Sair Lara again. He’s been speaking up at City Council meetings about problems at Applegate Park and other areas.

“I’m still very concerned about the lawlessness going on in Merced,” he said. “It’s really in your face. Obviously I want to work on solutions, but I feel like we are giving up our city to the homeless.”

Lara said he has information that some of the people causing problems in the park have multiple warrants, but they are not being arrested because the county jail won’t take them in.

Across downtown, inside Bob Hart Square, I also had a chat with Robert Matsuo, one of the owners of Five Ten Bistro.
He said the homeless and loitering problems continue in the town plaza where a couple trendy restaurants offer outdoor dining. He counts about nine people every day that sleep in the park, or cause disturbances. Matsuo continues to report issues to the Police Department.

In the big city
So I took my daughter to the Children’s Fairyland in Oakland recently. It’s a magical place along the beautiful Lake Merritt in the center of the city. We walked along a shore trail to get to the entrance, and I was surprised to NOT see any homeless encampments on the well-manicured park lawns.

However, on closer inspection, sure enough, I started to see a few scattered tents between the trees near the lake shore areas.

The views of the lake and the city as a backdrop were incredible. I found myself wondering if the city somehow limits the number of homeless people who can camp there, or how things work in the big city.

Later, we went to the Fishermen’s Wharf area in San Francisco. We were walking on Beach Street and I noticed a headline in the free Examiner newsstand.

It read: “Neighbors sue to block 200-bed navigation shelter.”

I thought to myself: “Isn’t Merced County and the City of Merced modeling their 200-bed navigation center after models in San Francisco?”

I grabbed the display edition because it was the last paper left in the stand.

According to the story, a band of neighbors in South Beach and Rincon Hill have filed a lawsuit to block a city-approved homeless shelter planned for the Embarcadero just south of the Bay Bridge.

A spokesman for the city attorney said, “San Francisco has a homeless crisis on its hands. The city is ready to put roofs over people’s heads and get them indoors. Others are filing baseless lawsuits to keep people out in the cold. Rather than trying to shift the problem to someone else’s backyard, everyone needs to do their part.”

The article noted newly released city data that shows 9,784 homeless persons were counted earlier this year — a 30 percent increase from 2017.

Wallace Lee, a member of the neighborhood group suing, said in a statement: “We support the moral imperative to care for the homeless. It is also a moral imperative of our government and its leaders to afford due process to residents, families, children, and businesses in this neighborhood and to protect them from harm. … There are undeniable negative impacts of homeless shelters on our neighborhood, including public alcohol and drug consumption, police interventions, property crime, personal assaults, and attracting additional homeless encampments.”

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