Most of us have welcomed our rainy December and recent temperatures below freezing. The rain means a chance to begin replenishing lakes and reservoirs and the cold weather means snow in the mountains, a harbinger of much-needed spring runoff.
But for the homeless, the wet and cold are nothing less than life-threatening. Last week’s heavy downpour caused the creek to rise in Beard Brook Park, soaking many homeless people’s belongings and drowning at least one dog. Wet clothing and bedding are often the beginning of prolonged hospital stays for people with no access to dryers or heat.
The onset of what promises to be a fierce winter has caused some towns and cities to impose emergency measures so that people without homes can at least find temporary shelter. Despite vocal opposition, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has taken the lead in sponsoring homeless camps. One, the Interbay camp, will shelter 80 people. The Ballard camp will shelter another 50.
In Los Angeles, a strong movement for ad hoc housing has people sleeping in pews at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Highland Park. Despite objections by some city leaders that the elevated pews pose a danger from people falling, compassion has thus far ruled over bureaucratic misgivings. Even the head of one the city’s rescue missions is looking for extra space in empty buildings.
Thus far in Modesto, despite a clear need for emergency shelter, none of our local leaders has stepped forward to argue the need for winter shelter during what may be one of our wettest winters ever, if El Nino factors hold true to form.
One of the problems is that our two major shelters, the Salvation Army Haig/Berberian building and the Modesto Gospel Mission, still haven’t reached full bed capacity on a daily basis. On the surface, this looks as though everyone is being sheltered who wants shelter. In fact, homeless people with dogs, significant others, or too many possessions to fit in a backpack, find giving these things up too much of a price even for shelter from the storm.
Another problem is simple distance. Many homeless people have established at least a fragile refuge at some distance from the shelters, even if it means sleeping on the ground. Giving up what little security they have represents a huge gamble for people who are routinely rousted from day and nighttime habitation.
Modesto residents have long claimed their town’s low rankings in various “livability” factors overlook the character of its people. In fact, some have even said homeless people deliberately come here because valley citizens are so compassionate and generous.
While there’s no evidence for that claim, it’s certainly true that many locals give generously of food and clothing in compassionate recognition of the needs of the poor. No matter how much they give, however, citizens can’t provide homeless people space in empty buildings and empty lots for tents and temporary shelter. Those measures require local leaders with the courage to be as compassionate as their constituents.
As a grim winter looms, Modesto’s leaders need to step forward and do the right thing for those among us with nowhere to go. Suspending a few ordinances and working with private property owners to allow access for tents and temporary shelter would reflect the will of the community far more accurately than the rousts and harassment which are the only policies in place today, policies that could one day add to our list of municipal embarrassments and shame.