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Homelessness meeting draws crowd
Council to consider changing park hours, adding lighting
homeless meeting july 19
A standing-room only crowd packed into the Public Safety Facility’s Training Room on Thursday night for the Turlock City Council’s emergency meeting on illegal behavior in public spaces and homelessness. - photo by KRISITNA HACKER / The Journal

The Turlock City Council is scheduled to consider on Tuesday adopting two of the measures proposed by Mayor Gary Soiseth during an emergency Council meeting held Thursday to discuss illegal behavior in public spaces and homelessness.

A crowd of over 100 people packed the Public Safety Facility’s Training Room on Thursday night to participate in the special meeting Soiseth called to discuss a number of measures he proposed during his State of the City address on July 12 aimed at addressing homelessness and vagrancy in Turlock. The meeting — originally scheduled for Central Park and then moved to the air-conditioned meeting room at the Public Safety Facility due to extreme heat — lasted three hours, with dozens of community members commenting on the issue of homelessness and the policies proposed by Soiseth.

The Mayor’s proposals included changing the ordinance regarding the removal of private property from the public right of way, helping re-unite homeless individuals with families who may live in other towns, adding new LED lighting to downtown parks, changing the hours of operation for downtown parks, increasing enforcement of animal and bicycle licenses and adding two new positions to the Neighborhood Services Department to better enforce current and any new city ordinances pertaining to parks and public spaces.

“Let me be clear: we are not criminalizing homelessness and we are not going to stop helping those that want to be helped. But I won’t stand by and watch the health and safety of our downtown, our parks and our shopping centers deteriorate because some folks decide not to respect the rules and laws of our city,” said Soiseth about his proposals.

Many members of the community voiced opposition to increased enforcement of bicycle and animal licensing saying that it unduly targets those who are homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless.

It’s about community and community is defined by the roof over your head. It is not defined by the amount of money you have. It is not defined by your health. It is defined by the people taking care of each other and Turlock is number one there.
Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar

“We’ve seen this trough before. The registration ordinance is used by police as a convenient excuse to stop people who are deemed suspicious — and I’m not attacking the police, I’m just saying this is how it ends up working. It is used specifically to profile vulnerable populations. Cities have local police issue citations for unregistered bikes. After enough citations are issued, they can then impound their transportation; this sometimes happens miles from where they live. It also allows the police to be the ones that are the bad guys, to rout the poor, homeless, riding while brown person…,” said Dr. Ann Strahm.

Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar said that bicycle registration is covered under the California Vehicle Code and the reason for the process is not to target any group of individuals but to ensure that a bike is safe to operate on public roadways.

“Law enforcement will not and shall not stop someone to check their bike license. That will not happen, period…there’s no reason for us to stop someone on a bicycle that is operating legally. However, when that bicyclist crosses the roadway in front of a vehicle, fails to stop for a pedestrian, drives on the sidewalk at not an appropriate age, drives in the wrong direction, runs a red light, runs a stop sign, has headphones on in both ears and we stop them, it’s a Vehicle Code violation and now we’ll check their license,” said Amirfar.

The police chief talked about the efforts the city and its partners undertake to inform community members about bicycle and pet licensing laws and the programs available to get these licenses at low or no cost.

“It’s about community and community is defined by the roof over your head. It is not defined by the amount of money you have. It is not defined by your health. It is defined by the people taking care of each other and Turlock is number one there,” said Amirfar.

While all of the Mayor’s proposals were discussed at Thursday’s workshop, only two will be considered for adoption at the next City Council meeting set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

“I’m really glad that the community came together to collectively start the conversation about the impacts of homelessness in Turlock,” said Soiseth. “Turlock is a compassionate community that will continue to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely, but we are also a community of laws. We need to continue to be tough on enforcement of laws in our parks and in our public spaces, which is exactly what I proposed at the meeting.”

The Council will consider changing the hours at Denair Park, Central Park and GAR Park, all of which are located in the downtown area, from the current 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. to dusk. If adopted, this park hour change would be on a trial basis, with city staff evaluating the impacts to crime occurring in those spaces with the shortened hours and bringing the information back the Council.

These parks were targeted for a change in hours as a way to discourage illegal activity in these areas, which have a high police call volume on a monthly basis, according to Amirfar.

“We’re talking about vagrancy issues in our parks, we’re talking about illegal activity in our parks. My staff work hard to provide quality services to the entire community, regardless of housing status,” said Parks, Recreation and Public Facilities Director Allison Van Guilder.

The Council will also consider re-lamping the streetlights and security lights at Broadway, Central and GAR parks with LED technology at an estimated cost of $2,523.32. The new lights would be brighter and kept on longer, as a way to increase visibility to patrolling police officers looking for illegal activity in the parks. Brighter lights after the parks close is contrary to the traditional thinking of public space management, which calls for dimming lights when parks close as a visual cue to leave the space, said Municipal Director Michael Cooke.

“There is a concept of community policing through environmental design, where we can design the environment to facilitate community policing. There’s a notion that maybe brighter parks allow the public and law enforcement to see in the parks and it’s safer to walk in and when it comes to illegal activity, we can police those parks better,” said Cooke.

Thursday’s emergency City Council meeting comes after a series of recent community forums that focused on homelessness issues that included City of Turlock Director of Economic Development and Housing Maryn Pitt, Parks, Recreation and Facilities Manager Eric Schulze, Fire Marshall Mark Gomez, members of the Turlock Downtown Property Owners Association and service providers United Samaritans, We Care and Turlock Gospel Mission. Following the last community meeting in June, four subcommittees. It’s unknown if there will be a follow-up to these meetings.