Jim “Jimbo” Garrison was fighting back tears as he explained why he didn’t want to leave the 624 Ninth Street apartments where he’s formed a tight band of friends.
“These are my friends, these are my family,” he said. “What right do they have to make us leave? What right do they have to move us to a motel and put us through a program?”
According to Garrison, the City of Modesto has made motel rooms available for displaced residents of the condemned building, but has imposed conditions, including routine inspections of the motel rooms and a $200 fee for pets.
Though it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to live in the horrid environment at the Ninth Street residence, Garrison said tenants had formed a community.
“We watch out for each other,” he said. “We weed out the really bad people. We take care of each other.” He added that he knew many of the residents had problems, but their mutual problems often enabled people to bond in close friendship.
Even while Garrison was speaking, residents still left in the building were hugging and shedding tears at the prospect of leaving and being separated.
Despite Garrison’s concerns, it makes good sense for city officials to monitor the relocation process closely. Many of the studios are infested with bedbugs, cockroaches, and other pests. Moving personal items without close supervision could amount to spreading vermin.
Garrison said that despite his efforts to keep things clean, he’s got rats in his studio every night. “My dog made the mistake of trying to chase a rat and it attacked him and bit him.” Though he’s plugged entry holes and covered them with plywood, the rats have chewed through every barrier he’s put up.
The structural problems are so bad that at least two very experienced experts have said the building is the worst they’ve ever seen. Owner Steve Arakelian is still trying to sell the property after a serious buyer backed out of escrow upon closer inspection of the structural damage.
Most of the tenants fear they won’t be able to afford rents even if they’re able to find vacancies. Like most California cities, Modesto has a severe shortage of affordable housing, and residents at 624 Ninth are on the very low end of low income people.
Even building Manager Virginia Anderson was in tears at the prospect of having to relocate. In addition to free rent, she and her husband were paid $60 a week to tend the building’s endless problems, ranging from vermin, to crime, to deteriorating infrastructure, to the constant comings and goings of gang members, squatters, and predators.
Anderson said she hasn’t been paid during the recent turmoil. She believes she doesn’t qualify for assistance, and has no idea where to go for help.
Despite Anderson’s and Garrison’s fears, city and county officials may have done as well as anyone could do, given the hellish conditions they’ve had to deal with. Bert Lippert, the city’s building inspector, has knocked on doors, taken names, and tried to keep track of residents who are often not at home or don’t answer their doors.
Jeanette Fabela, head of Stanislaus County’s Homeless Initiative, can refer to many residents by name and is trying to focus especially on elderly people and those most in need of help. Both city and county are working to relocate residents in the midst of a hugely complex situation that involves a multitude of potentially bad outcomes. So far officials have done plenty of their own due diligence and have also listened to the wise counsel of involved volunteers like Modesto’s Maryann Spikes, who’s spent hours online with displaced residents and even more hours seeking solutions for their problems.
Everyone is clearly sympathetic to the trauma of dislocation for residents like Jim Garrison and his “family.” There’s just little else than can be done when decades of deferred maintenance result in a human catastrophe.
Unfortunately, poverty and homelessness in general also represent decades of deferred maintenance and the costs of repairs will be far beyond the effort and expense of relocating a few dozen residents of a condemned building. There are more human catastrophes to come.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.