An item on the removal of the downtown benches for maintenance turned into a lengthy discussion about the problems of the downtown homeless at the Monday, Feb. 4 Oakdale City Council meeting.
Shortly after Mayor Pat Paul introduced first-day city manager Brian Whitemyer followed by his swearing in, the council heard a short agenda that included an informational item by Police Chief Lester Jenkins regarding the removal of the North Third Avenue park benches for maintenance as a resource to combat complaints of homeless and other vagrants gathering downtown.
Without the benches to loaf on and gather, the plan is to make the subjects move to another location. The refurbished benches would be brought back in June for the Farmers Market.
Chief Jenkins said his department has been receiving repeated complaints about public drinking, vandalism, and other disturbances regarding a select group of individuals.
“I would say 90 percent of those people have a drinking problem and the drinking exacerbates the problem,” said Jenkins. “It’s a whole list of problems that goes with the drinking – fighting, panhandling, urinating in public.”
The police department started out with warnings, then citations, and now has had to move to arrests in select cases. Unfortunately, an overcrowded jail and court system is making enforcement futile and without consequence as those arrested are immediately released by the jail and cases are dismissed by the court.
Citizens and business owners were invited by Mayor Paul to comment as several addressed the dais with recounts of harassment, damage to property, and trash to their premises. Some women business owners spoke about locking themselves inside their property out of fear for their safety.
In his first meeting decision, Whitemyer told the council that the bench removal would be the first step to be evaluated and he would work with staff to explore other options, contacting other cities to see what may have been successful.
With many of the council shaking their heads in agreement, Paul called for and encouraged more citizens to come up and speak on the issue.
Additional citizens, some parents of students at Valley Oak School of Dance, added their complaints of the homeless behavior and safety fears.
“These individuals need to be out of downtown,” said Councilman Tom Dunlop. “As a cattleman, my answer (what to do with them) wouldn’t be politically correct.”
Dunlop went on to explain that he wasn’t encouraging vigilante tactics and suggested “sacrificing” another area of town for the individuals to gather. Dunlop even suggested the city supplying a chemical toilet in the chosen area to encourage them to stay at that location.
“I don’t know of any area in the city that would welcome them,” said Jenkins.
“I think we need to get our police officers to do more enforcement, or at least a presence,” said Councilman Farrell Jackson.
Chief Jenkins explained that the individuals causing the problems know the limitations of the police, and when officers are present, are not acting out of line.
Since the nuisances are no more than misdemeanor crimes, California state law mandates that officers must witness the act before they can make an arrest.
“I can’t beat ‘em, I can’t shoot ‘em, I can’t bury ‘em,” scoffed Jenkins. “I can only take them to jail.”
Jenkins went on to say that though jail is an inconvenience, the subjects don’t stay and are rarely charged with a crime. In the end, the threat of arrest or jail has no real consequence.
Additional speakers were still solicited by the mayor as Jenkins fended questions on enforcement limitations and additional individual stories of homeless dissatisfaction in the downtown area were heard.
In the end, the council circled back to Whitemyer’s suggestion that the benches would be removed, the process evaluated, and staff would explore best options of other cities.
“The DA has over 100 murder cases alone pending for trial,” said Jenkins after the meeting. “It would take a lot for them to take a look at an ordinance violation.”