We have only ourselves to blame for the lack of progress in Merced
Since COVID-19 hit Merced, there hasn’t been much progress to talk about.
Homelessness has only gotten worse, unemployment is as high as always, and, of course, crime is going up.
The zealous pundits out there may want to blame the liberals in Sacramento, Gavin Newsom, Donald Trump or systemic racism. However, I would pose that I have seen times like this before, and my experience tells me that it isn’t political scapegoats in far off lands who are responsible for growing our citywide problems as much as it is our own local decisions right here in Merced.
Take a close look at my side of town, for example. The mismanagement of Project Room Key at the Merced Inn by the County of Merced, City of Merced, and the Continuum of Care, has led to the utter demise of an entire side of town. From Joe Herb Park to Highway 99, from Highway 99 to the Courtyard Marriott, and back to the Bradley Overpass, our area has become a sad collection of Winnebagos, fires, boarded up windows, torn down buildings, vandalism, homelessness and prostitution.
Yet, only a few years ago, from 2016 to 2019, the Childs and Parsons Avenue area was briefly one of the most redeveloped areas in Merced.
For those unaware, Project Room Key is a program that provided funding to local areas so they could house local homeless individuals who had COVID19 or were at extreme health risk. In theory, this gives local governments a chance to get at-risk people off the streets, so they don’t become ill or spread COVID19. Not a bad idea, in theory. However, it appears our leaders, instead, decided to house people from across the county at a spot that wasn’t built to sustain that type of permanent influx of homeless people, for as long as they could, without any real strategy on how to mitigate the possible negative impact that was likely to develop. So, as problems emerged and people complained, assistance was eventually directed where needed. However, this reactive approach has led to the demise of nearly all the economic progress that occurred from 2016 to 2019 at the area of Childs and Parsons Avenue. Over this past year, properties next to the Merced Inn have seen tremendous disruptions to their businesses. Joe Herb Park has become a bastion for those sleeping in their cars, and mobile homes and campsites have appeared in places they never used to be, yet they are all in proximity to the Merced Inn.
There are city leaders, even our own mayor, who pose for pictures and give quotes to the paper about the tremendous work they’ve done to secure funding and housing for troubled individuals. Yet, while our leaders take political victory laps, the new buildings they boast about, that take years to complete and millions of dollars to make, reach capacity as soon as they open without giving us any relief from our homeless problems. When you point out this flaw to our mayor or other city leaders – when you point out that upon completing these sites there will be an influx of people that we are not accounting for – when you point out that when it’s time to leave this housing, many of them will have nowhere to go and simply remain homeless in the area – when you point out that there will be a rise in certain crime that we are unprepared for – these same elected officials that boast about their “work” have no answer for us.
This leads a person to wonder, is this really the plan? – Not just for this hotel, but for all the buildings and homeless resources we’re developing? We throw money at the problem, so it looks like we care. We build large facilities and farm out new programs as we boast about our commitment to help the less fortunate. Meanwhile, the whole time we turn a blind eye to the obvious negative impacts our decisions have on our residents and, instead, blame it all on a larger statewide crisis. Sure, the figures and statistics show that money is being used, and the politicians can talk about how much funding they’ve secured, but in practice, the parks are no cleaner, the streets are no safer, and our homeless problems are worse than before.
And this is the current state of our city from the point of view of an average local Mercedian: We don’t know what the plan is to fix homelessness and poverty, yet we know whatever it is, it isn’t working. We question why our leaders never make decisions that change anything, and then resign ourselves to the reality that in Merced that’s just how it is.
Maybe there’s a lot I’m missing. Maybe my expectations are unreasonable. Maybe THIS IS what progress looks like, and we should be thankful for the things our mayor has done and for the things we have to deal with.
Or maybe, just maybe, when it comes to homelessness… and crime, and gangs, and teen pregnancy, and poverty, and drugs, and unemployment, and all the things that have always plagued this city, our leadership has no vision. There is no plan. We are on our own.
Then again, maybe not … but it sure does feel that way right now.
Anthony Martinez is a local high school teacher and former member of the Merced City Council.