The homeless and vagrancy problem in Oakdale; always something to generate conversation, social media comments, and ideas of what to do, now has created the need for a community meeting titled “Focus on Prevention: Homelessness” on Oct. 26.
One side of the issue points out that homeless people in the city are decreasing residents’ quality of life, damaging private property, over taking the parks, and are demanding something needs to be done from the city to control the problem. From the creation of ordinances, enforcement of existing laws, and eviction from encampments, many citizens have voiced the need for assertive action.
The other side claims assistance is necessary and more privately or publically funded programs are in order. They claim that anti-camping or public sleeping laws make it illegal to be homeless and are unfair and mean-spirited.
Oakdale So Far
Oakdale is by no means overflowing in its homeless-vagrancy problem but residents have noted some very serious issues attributed to bad elements within the homeless population.
Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins has said a number of times a long term solution is needed to deal with the homeless and the problem he viewed that “wasn’t just going to go away.” Jenkins, who said he didn’t want the homeless living in the city parks or by the river, believed a concrete solution was needed for the individuals to get out of the situation they were in.
Drug paraphernalia can be found regularly in Wood, Meyer, and Dorada parks and other public spaces such as downtown. Police reports document fights, fires, noise and human waste problems in areas around town. In August a portable bathroom was set ablaze by transients within Meyer Park. In the recent past, some church groups have served meals to homeless people in parks. That had the unfortunate effect of also centralizing the bad elements that hide within the homeless population.
At last count, there are more than 1500 homeless men and women who live in Stanislaus County with about 70 in Oakdale. Another 30 in the city are deemed to have places to go, but choose the life on the street. State government has pretty much delegated dealing with the homeless problem to municipalities, like Oakdale, which tend to have even fewer resources
The city council and city administrators are now faced with the sensitive matter of what to do: enact ordinances and laws aimed at discouraging the nuisance behavior of these individuals or support private and citizen efforts to offer resources and solutions for Oakdale’s homeless population.
As of now there are no shelters, or even firm plans in place – just talks and meetings.
The city has addressed certain symptoms of the issue in an attempt to control the problem, but nothing directly targeted for the “homeless.” The council removed a portable toilet from Meyer Park in September that many residents felt encouraged the gathering of vagrants, and enacted ordinances that banned adults from park play areas, drinking in parks and another prohibiting going through trash containers.
“The issues surrounding individuals dealing with homelessness are complex,” said Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer. “There is no quick fix or easy solution. Our ultimate goal is to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in Oakdale. To be successful in this endeavor we need non-profit organizations, faith based organizations, local governments, local businesses, schools, and community members to work together in a coordinated way.”
Other Cities Take
With homeless encampments showing up in their library park and various other parts of their city, nearby Manteca residents called for something to be done regarding aggressive panhandling, drug and alcohol use in public places, defecating and urination in public, and intimidating others trying to use parks.
In response, the Manteca City Council late last year enacted an ordinance that made it unlawful to construct or occupy homeless encampments on any street, in any park, on publicly owned or maintained parking lots or parcels and on all private property.
In the City of Tracy, residents were so fed up with panhandling at intersections and shopping centers that they persuaded their city council to put into place a strict anti-begging ordinance that raised the penalties for panhandling and overnight camping in city parks to misdemeanors.
Last month the City of Marysville introduced a “Public Peace, Safety and Morals” code. The ordinance does not specifically mention homelessness, but its creation was centered on the vagrancy problem stemming from a homeless encampment in the city. With the visible associated problems of urination and defecation in public places and people lying on sidewalks, the law was designed to “fill gaps” – as a local councilman called it – in the city’s existing code. The proposed ordinance also makes it unlawful to remove or possess shopping carts.
Two years ago, Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, voted to make it illegal to dwell in a car.
Manteca, Tracy, Marysville, and Palo Alto residents claim the laws improved the “quality of life” around their cities.
Attempts to curb homelessness through legal penalties on either the indigent themselves or the groups who try to help them have also been created. Some area cities have “not-in-my-backyard” efforts underway that have successfully forced an end or relocation to existing food-sharing programs in parks and other gathering areas that they felt were enabling the behaviors and not doing anything for assistance.
Housing Not Laws
“The Right to Rest Act” was introduced into the California Senate earlier this year. The bill, which would decriminalize sleep, rest, and the sharing of food in public spaces, was pulled from the committee without a vote. Supporters vow to introduce it next year.
The League of California Cities, an association of California city officials that work to influence policy decisions, drafted a petition against the bill, arguing that it doesn’t provide a solution to homelessness and would “undermine the ability of all others to access clean and non-threatening public spaces.”
Homeless advocates believe that cuts to funding for affordable housing and mental health programs are largely to blame for the modern crisis of homelessness. They believe the laws are tantamount to calling the homeless dirty and threatening.
Even if there was affordable housing available, having a criminal record makes it more difficult for homeless individuals to find employment and housing. Those assisting the homeless claim aggressive policing pushes the homeless out of the reach of faith centers and entities providing assistance, farther from the services intended to help them.
The faith based Oakdale Rescue Mission offers support services to the homeless such as meals, clothing, resources and referrals. Mission representatives have said they would like to see a designated place within the city to provide their services including showers, bathroom, and laundry as well as a place to store individuals’ belongings and handle food preparation.
The mission’s executive director, Pamela Kelly, said she’s looking forward to the meeting to give citizens the opportunity to evaluate the reality of homelessness and its effects to identify possible solutions.
“I encourage our community to support Oakdale Rescue Mission as an effective potential solution—immediate and long term,” Kelly said.
Another resource is the Oak Valley Hospital Family Support Network.
“The people that come into the Family Support Network can get a bag of food once a month,” said the Oakdale network’s executive director, Karen O’Bannon. “If they come in a second time we ask them to sign up for at least one of our 15 programs. We just don’t hand things out, our purpose is to help people help themselves.”
The Focus on Prevention: Homelessness Community Meeting will be Monday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Bianchi Community Center.
“The city supports Stanislaus County’s Focus on Prevention initiative and looks forward in helping in that effort,” Whitemyer said.