Spokespeople for Stanislaus County’s “Focus on Prevention” program for the homeless have been saying for months that, “Money’s not the problem.” For people who’ve been on the ground dealing with the burgeoning homeless population, the claim just doesn’t make sense.
Especially since the City of Modesto opened Beard Brook Park to campers, the extent of the homelessness has become more and more evident. Within a couple of weeks, almost 200 people have arrived at the park, and more come in every day.
Servicing Porta-Potties and dumpsters has already become a problem as both reach capacity sooner than anyone planned. Toilet paper disappears almost as fast as it’s replaced, and in the last few days there has been vandalism in the Porta-Potties themselves. But as more and more people arrive, managing the encampment seems less a problem than its so-called “temporary” status.
Shortly after the camp site was approved by city officials, there was talk of moving residents to a building near Highway 99 and Tuolumne Boulevard—but that site won’t begin to handle current numbers of homeless people, and more are on the way.
County leaders are also considering a former hospital site along Scenic Drive, just east of downtown Modesto, but local residents have been adamantly opposed to that location. And talks about the numbers of homeless people involved there have ranged from 60 to 150 people—nowhere near the numbers who need shelter.
There hasn’t been much discussion of actual dollars, but people especially concerned about those struggling with serious mental illness (SMI) in the homeless population remember well when Lonny Davis of Davis Guest Homes offered the county a bargain rate to care for them. Davis’s offer was for $102 a day, plus the individual’s disability payments.
While this may seem exorbitant, caring for SMI people is a full-time job requiring dispensation of prescription medicine, qualified staff, and, in Davis’ case, a full-time on-call psychiatrist. When the county rejected Davis’s offer and accused him of trolling for business, he was so miffed he vowed to reject any clients the county sent him.
Many experts think at least a quarter to one-third of homeless people are mentally ill. Point-in-time counts estimate there are anywhere from 1600 to 2000 homeless people in Stanislaus County. Just to err on the conservative side, let’s say there are 300 total SMI homeless people in the county. That’s 300 x 365 x $102, or over $11 million.
The homeless population also includes disabled people, addicted people, old people, and, more and more often, people who’ve been displaced when the rent went up. Thus far, the favored solution offered by county authorities is an access or “navigation” center, where homeless people could be temporarily housed and connected to the appropriate services.
There’s also talk of a low-barrier shelter which would allow people to stay with their spouses, keep their pets, and come and go at will.
Critics say that available services for homeless people are already well beyond capacity, and even after homeless people are treated for their various problems there’s nowhere for them to go afterward.
But the real rub is that at present, the county only has some $5 million, $2.5 million of which is supposed to fund management of the proposed low barrier shelter. The other $1.5 million is dedicated to the “Downtown Streets Team,” a program dedicated to putting homeless people to work in downtown Modesto and funding nonprofits. State “crisis” funding is available, but authorities would have to officially declare a homeless crisis by October 15 to qualify. And even then, the sum being mentioned amounts to less than $11 million.
But if there’s not even enough money to take care of the homeless people who are seriously mentally ill, how will we house everyone else—and, by definition, housing is the remedy. Homeless people are homeless because they don’t have homes.
For many, permitted camping in Beard Brook Park is a big step up from seeking out-of-the-way places along the river, behind buildings, and in restricted parks. For them, a tent is in many ways preferable to a barracks-like situation in a crowded building.
And local service providers are already learning it’s much easier to reach out to homeless people when you know where they are. Temporary or not, unless local authorities can come up with a site that can accommodate hundreds of people, camping could be as good an alternative as any. Claims that, “Money’s not the problem,” don’t seem to be supported by any real comprehension of how much it’s going to cost to get people housed, let alone properly cared for.