“If you build it, they will come.”
This was the sentiment of a small group called Taxpayers and Business Owners of Oakdale that called a meeting at Café Bravo on Thursday, Nov. 12 to discuss Oakdale’s homeless problem and to express their opposition to any plans for a shelter to come into the city.
Without a doubt, the entire group of less than a dozen, which included Oakdale City Councilwoman Cherilyn Bairos, said the Oct. 26 meeting, “Focus on Prevention: Homelessness” hosted by the city and county was not what they expected on how to deal with a vagrancy problem that residents and business owners have been complaining about for several years.
“It went a different direction than I had thought it would,” Bairos said, telling the group her personal feelings were not to have any shelter in the city if it was proposed. “To tell the truth, I expected at least something to be resolved.”
“I have no desire to go to something like that again,” Laura Cunningham of Cunningham Trucking said about Stanislaus County Community Development and Empowerment Manager Ruben Imperial’s presentation. “It was a waste of my time.”
Oakdale resident Katie Rogers was more blunt.
“It was very ‘Kumbaya,’” Rogers said. “At some point the City of Oakdale agreed to participate in what this guy is pushing.”
Bairos said one of the reasons she was meeting with the grass roots group was to gather views and also identify where the idea of a possible shelter being planned for Oakdale originated.
“I’m here like you, as a concerned citizen,” Bairos said. “There are a number of us on the council. I’m only one vote, but I will also bring back what you say.”
Some in the group pointed to a recently released outline by Imperial and the county’s Focus on Prevention that called for expanding homeless shelters and building new ones, including providing more transitional housing for those with mental illness and other homeless who want to find shelter.
Many also questioned Oakdale Rescue Mission’s plan of a specialized vehicle with shower facilities, public toilets and laundry services and a proposed day center or “Engagement Center” for connecting the homeless with assistance, storage facilities, and providing meals.
“Where are they going to wait during the day or where will they go if it fills up?” asked Cunningham. “It will only mean more coming to Oakdale.”
Cunningham also pointed out various current social media requests for tarps, sleeping bags, and blankets to be distributed to the homeless due to the weather.
“That will just result in more stuff scattered about the city,” she said.
“Until they want to change themselves, they won’t change,” said Terrina Melo of Past and Present Antiques. “Not jail, not a shelter. They have to be the ones to decide, and I don’t see that happening.”
Ericka Chiara of Last Call Brewing Company, who called the meeting, said she was “morally conflicted” about the situation stating she wanted to provide help to homeless in some way, but also didn’t want to attract more to the area which in turn would cause more problems for an already overwhelmed police department.
“Every day, it seems more and more are here,” Chiara said. “It’s gotten to the point where we don’t feel safe at our business afterhours.”
Much of the discussion surrounded business owner concerns of being plagued by theft, property damage, issues of human waste, and a “take culture” by those on the street combined with a general feeling of procrastination by the city. The group voiced an opinion that the city should have moved in one direction by now instead of “going to meetings, having discussions, and looking into the issues.”
Bairos encouraged the group to go to city council meetings and continually remind the council and city officials of the problems they are experiencing and demand action.
“The voice of the people needs to be the biggest voice,” Chiara said. “Not the county who wants HUD money.”
Chiara said she plans on scheduling another meeting of the group, possibly in the evening to attract more to attend.
“Having it in the afternoon may have been a problem to some of the other business owners,” Chiara said.