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Ignoring the homeless doesn’t make them go away

POSTED May 20, 2011 9:20 p.m.

On my daily drive to work I pass by Central Park — otherwise known as Homeless Park. Every single day there are at least six, and usually more than 10, people lying around the park. These people are obviously homeless, as they have blankets, duffels bags and shopping carts full of stuff surrounding them.

When my gaze drifts towards their make-shift campsites I often am overcome with compassion. No matter how hard my life is at that moment, I have a loving family, a roof over my head and a good job. These poor people obviously have nowhere else to go and must find refuge in a public park with the whole world watching their every move.

This compassion drives me to volunteer at the We Care emergency cold weather shelter in the winter months and collect socks and individual-sized toiletries that I then donate to the United Samaritans Foundation.

Then there are those days when I have little or no compassion — like when I arrived at my place of work to find someone had used our back door as a bathroom. Or the times I visit the Turlock Chamber of Commerce and witness drugs being sold behind the tree in Central Park. Or when I am chased down the street by a group of people screaming obscenities at me.

I am not alone in my conflicting emotions about our homeless population. I have spoken with quite a few downtown business owners who want to help those less fortunate, but find that their good works are repaid with disrespect and vandalism.

Of course, not all homeless people are vandals, criminals or public nuisances. Many are just down on their luck or struggling with overwhelming problems and need time and assistance to get back on their feet again.

The problem of homelessness and how our community should respond has been a hot issue in Turlock for many years. However, the prevalence of homeless people camping out in the downtown area has been on the rise since 2005. That was the year the police rousted the homeless out from under the Golden State Boulevard overpass near First Street.

Before 2005, the homeless had a shantytown set up with various shelters constructed from cardboard boxes, old wood and anything they could find. I understand this created an unsafe environment and violated the city’s camping laws, but destroying their unofficial campground before constructing an alternative place to be made a downtown homeless problem inevitable.

There were plans to build a permanent homeless shelter in town, complete with a lawn big enough to allow people to congregate during the daytime hours. The building plans were drafted, the site selected and $1 million in grant funding was secured. What happened?  A new city council was elected and they decided building a permanent homeless shelter was a bad idea.

I really don’t know what a homeless person is supposed to do. Not only is there no shelter available in the fall, spring and summer months, but camping is illegal.

The city is working on the problem. The Turlock Homeless Action Committee (THAC) was created in 2008, following a report on homelessness commissioned by the city council.

Since then the committee has developed a nearly comprehensive view of the causes of homelessness, and contributing factors that keep people on the streets. With a common understanding of what was needed, the THAC began to develop a strategy to solve homelessness.

A decision was reached to pursue a “continuum of care” approach, offering support to the homeless at all stages in their journey back to being housed.  The THAC said the best move, however, was to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. The continuum of care includes the “prehomeless,” those on the brink of life on the streets.

The continuum of care involves multiple service providers, all continuing to perform their current duties while acting as a group to support individuals in need. To help organize the myriad organizations’ offerings – and to provide a starting point for the homeless – the THAC strategy calls for the development of a Community Resource Center.

The center would offer referrals, track community needs, and monitor individual progress through the system for the marginally housed, the recently homeless and the chronically homeless. This resource center is still in the development stage and the THAC is currently looking for possible board members and funding sources.

This all sounds like a good idea, but it’s been three years since the Homeless Action Committee was formed, and, so far the “action” part of their title has not materialized.

Ignoring the homeless will not make them go away. Arresting them will only remove problems for a short time.

There needs to be long-term solutions for dealing with the chronically homeless in our area, for the good of the people living on the streets, local business owners and the public at large.

To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail khacker@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.

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