Years after the explosion of homelessness in Stanislaus County, authorities are still trying to sweep it under the rug. No better example exists of the futility of the “Sweep them Away” policy than Beard Brook Park.
Probably because it’s relatively remote and surrounded by industry rather than residences, Beard Brook has long been a favored location for chronically homeless people. Even after the bathrooms were destroyed by vandals and shut down, the park was a magnet for people looking for a quiet and safe place to set up camp.
Over the years, a core group of chronically homeless people formed a tight-knit community at Beard Brook. Such communities aren’t unusual among homeless groups— they’re formed for the same reasons communities are formed everywhere—people in close proximity have common interests and do better when they share values and responsibilities.
The list of rules in homeless communities is usually short and simple. The two most common are “Don’t steal” and “Don’t snitch.” The “Don’t snitch” rule is based on the virtually universal distrust among homeless people of authorities, especially police officers and sheriffs.
A major reason homeless people distrust authorities results from what they view as harassment in the form of repeatedly being forced to move from place to place. In the case of the Beard Brook core community, the moves have become a ritual.
Once put on notice they have to move, veterans of Beard Brook organize their belongings. Some can get everything they own on a garden cart. Others must stash belongings at locations they’ve established over the years. In both cases, Beard Brook squatters are ready to move fast.
Depending on their savvy and experience, the Beard Brook people have numerous alternatives to the park. The less experienced often migrate to new locations, including Modesto’s Fourth Street, Moose, and Legion Parks, encampments along the Tuolumne River, and various locations in downtown Modesto.
The most experienced residents of Beard Brook have a select group of preferred locations where they set up temporary camps and wait until attention drifts away from Beard Brook. Resilient and self-sufficient, this group is also patient; they know that the city and county have no lasting and coherent policy for addressing homelessness, are short-handed, and will soon be distracted by the need to “whack-a-mole” somewhere else.
While they’re waiting, Beard Brook veterans watch the park. As newcomers and others begin using it, the veterans slowly re-infiltrate. Before too long, they’re back in their chosen home, waiting for the next senseless sweep, and wondering why city and county officials remain so committed to policies that don’t work.