Turlock, like the rest of the state and much of the country, has a homeless population.
According to the annual point-in-time count, Turlock has 211 homeless persons, roughly one in every 350 residents. The rate is better than California’s overall rate — 1 in every 240 — but far worse than the national average of 1 in 600.
In March 2021, the City of Turlock declared a local emergency in response to the increase of individuals experiencing homelessness. The City approved spending money to provide additional shelter beds at the fairgrounds and work with service providers to connect unsheltered individuals and families with emergency shelter and other available social service resources as well as reconnect homeless individuals with their families.
Over past year, county and local law enforcement have also dismantled homeless encampments around town, urging those people to sleep at a shelter instead of under the city’s freeways, in privately-owned vacant lots or adjacent to city parks.
Recently, the City of Turlock has held public forums to discuss homelessness and receive input on possible solutions.
The Journal asked Turlock mayoral and city council candidates to weigh in on how they think the City of Turlock should address homelessness.
Mayoral candidate Amy Bublak: Homelessness is one of the saddest and most serious challenges in local communities like Turlock.
For those facing homelessness, many factors can be involved. Losing a job, a family splitting up, an expensive medical emergency, a lack of affordable housing, and now extreme inflation in food and energy costs all might cause homelessness. The challenge becomes chronic when addiction, alcoholism, drugs, and mental health maladies are part of the problem.
Lenient federal courts have made it difficult and financially risky to enforce our local ordinances that implement community standards against camping in parks, panhandling, vagrancy. One wrong move and a city can be forced to settle a federal lawsuit for millions of dollars.
As a result, cities like Turlock and its residents, business owners, and property owners can be made to bear an unacceptable burden. In Turlock, major encampments sprung up when a federal court decision froze city enforcement of ordinances. The Turlock encampments led to a significant public health and safety emergency, mostly for the unsheltered living there, that a majority of City Council chose to address last Spring by declaring a local emergency.
While those large encampments no longer exist, the challenge remains. For example, our downtown businesses bear a disproportionate share of the burden when people lack shelter and roam the streets. People who live near and use our City parks rightly feel that they become difficult to use when people camp there.
While the challenge is difficult, it is not insurmountable. Our goal as a City is to connect the homeless who want to be helped with the many non-profit and governmental programs that exist while re-introducing enforcement of our local community standards as reflected in our municipal code.
What is the City doing?
Since our Police Department has been understaffed for many years, your Chief of Police is working to fill 10 positions in his department to ensure we have the staffing needed to support city-wide public safety efforts. Further, the City is implementing a unique process to hire law enforcement professionals faster, expediting an otherwise lengthy process without sacrificing excellence in vetting, identifying and hiring the very best candidates. This will provide more "eyes on the street" to address homeless challenges.
The City is holding public input meetings so that senior City staff can hear directly from Turlock residents on the homelessness challenge.
Our City Manager and City Attorney, in conjunction with the Police Department, are comprehensively reviewing existing City ordinances and developing new ones to reduce the collateral impacts of homelessness, especially on homes, business, and City facilities like parks.
Turlock is working closely with the County’s CARE Team which focuses on reconnecting the homeless with family and friends that can provide support and on helping to restore some homeless individuals so that they can again become productive members of society.
The City will soon hear a proposal from Legacy Health Endowment about how to better monitor and assist our non-profit providers in meeting the local challenges of homelessness.
There is no one solution to this community challenge, but by working together we can help those who need and want help while maintaining local standards.
Mayoral candidate Gil Esquer: Turlock, the plan is not the issue here folks. We already have plenty of plans out there! We’ve been talking about homelessness for over a decade and the residents, and myself, are tired of inaction. Before I left office, I put forward one of these plans that laid out how we could make progress on this issue over the next 10 years.
It called for all the things we already know we need more of: affordable, transitional, and permanent supportive housing; better outreach and engagement with those struggling with mental health and substance abuse; stronger enforcement against the individuals that have no regard for others in this community. On top of all that, I called for historic investments into the parts of this town that have suffered the most from this problem.
Maybe, the most important piece of the plan was that it took the power away from the politicians and put it into the hands of experts in the field that actually know what they’re talking about. I will immediately put into effect a commission made up of leaders in healthcare, public safety, the private sector, people with lived experience, and our faith sector to lead us through this very difficult issue.
District 1 candidate Chris Nichols: Homelessness/unhoused doesn’t happen overnight and I believe fixing is not going to happen overnight either.
First, short term, I have sat down with multiple mayors in multiple cities including Vito Chelsea the County Supervisor, and spoke with Turlock Police Chief Haddon where homelessness/unhoused has been an issue. I believe that we need to work with the county and STAN cares program to continue to reunite the unhoused with their families. A program that I would like to kickoff is called the Hand Up Initiative. The hand up is we want our unhoused/homelessness to raise their hand if they want to be reunited with their family. I would like to work with Police Chief Haddon to utilize one of our officers for this program. Of course, we would have to limit this program because there aren’t unlimited funds to help everyone, but it’s a step in the right direction. We would work along with STAN cares.
According to the police chief, we had 235 unhoused in 2021; this year we are down to 212, so that’s almost 10% in one year. When I was the President of Rotary it opened up my eyes to how much our community needed help. I was heartbroken on how many homeless children we have in our community.
Another aspect of my plan is that we need a collaborative effort with the community to come together. I think there are a lot of wonderful organizations and churches in our community to assist. I believe that we need a Turlock come together program so we don’t have overlapping funds from different organizations to help our less fortunate. I believe Turlock really wants to step up and help. I believe that the city needs a liaison between the churches, organizations, police and council to do this. I also think this would be a great way to partner up with the county as well. We have the opportunity really to make an impact.
One thing that really has opened my eyes is when I have been knocking door to door and talking to our wonderful citizens of Turlock. A lot of our seniors are afraid to go downtown. They are afraid to go shopping. They are afraid to go to church because they feel that they will be approached and it’s a safety concern for our seniors. It’s a safety concern for me as well. So, putting this together won’t only help our unhoused, it will also help our seniors not feel like they can’t go outside because of safety concerns.
Now, I know I don’t want that for my family. I love the community of Turlock and this program won’t only help our unhoused but the byproduct of this is safety for our seniors. That is something I’m really passionate about.
District 1 candidate Kevin Bixel: You walk around our once beautiful downtown, and you can’t help but admit there has been no visual progress on this crisis. To see real change for this monumental problem we need to work with all the partners available to us – a strategy that taps into other cities, the county, and the state to combine resources to attack this multifaceted issue. The alternative is too expensive and will waste even more time.
Turlock leaders should focus on what we can improve at the local level. City leaders need to prioritize cleaning up our streets and our business fronts, adding to our housing supply, all while connecting those that want to be helped to the services that already exist.
For those that are trying to find legal loopholes with no interest in bettering their situation or contributing positively to our society, I don’t think we should tolerate that. I’ll do whatever can be done to support our officer’s ability to protect the public spaces for all our residents. As your councilmember, I will only be interested in programs that are working in other cities that are already producing measurable success.
District 3 candidate Cassandra Abram: Addressing homelessness is a topic that is close to my heart. I worked face-to-face with the unsheltered homeless at a health clinic on LA’s Skid Row before returning to Turlock. That experience informed my view that solutions to homelessness must provide stability for people to break the cycle of homelessness. Access to stable housing and supportive healthcare and social services will help people re-establish connections with society and become self-sustaining.
Turlock needs to increase our efforts with the county CARE Team to get help to the vulnerable now. We need to create a low-barrier shelter to serve our homeless population in the future by seeking partnerships and funding sources from the state and county level. We cannot seek to lessen homelessness through citations for violations of city ordinances. Being homeless is not a crime. Struggling with addiction or mental health conditions is not a moral failing. Our homeless residents are people in need of help, and we can make significant improvements in their lives and our community with expanded support and services.
In addition, any plan to address homelessness must coincide with plans for affordable housing. The most recent City of Turlock & Stanislaus Urban County report on housing shows that over 4000 households in Turlock spend more than half of their income on housing. Any number of financial or family hardships could make those residents unable to pay for their housing and increase their risk of homelessness. Additionally, regional projections show Turlock needs 5,800 new housing units by 2031, with 2,800 of those being low and very-low-income housing units. As Turlock grows, we must do so in a way that people can afford to live here, because if we don’t adequately plan for this need, the impacts are far-reaching: from issues with homelessness, to difficulties with retaining graduates from CSU Stanislaus, to simply having enough local people to work in Turlock’s businesses. Turlock has much work to do to implement systems that support all our residents, and I’m ready to put in the work to guide us forward on the City Council.
District 3 candidate Ramin Odisho: To fix our education crisis, let’s focus on educating. And with regard to homelessness, health and human needs is not only one of the greatest challenges of our day; it is a symptom of a larger and more ferocious challenge that is devastating families across the Central Valley and around the globe. With middle-class families constantly under pressure to save for retirement, create a rainy-day fund for emergencies, and save for their children’s education, on top of paying their bills, their ability to survive economically, spiritually and emotionally is severely challenged.
The National Alliance and the City of Turlock to End Homelessness;
A Coordinated Approach
To end homelessness, a community-wide coordinated approach to delivering services, housing, and programs is needed.
Creating Systems That Works and to address homelessness, communities should take a coordinated approach, moving from a collection of individual programs to a community-wide response that is strategic and data driven. Communities that have adopted this approach use data about the needs of those experiencing homelessness to inform how they allocate resources, services, and programs.
Housing as the Solution
The solution to homelessness is simple – housing. Rapid re-housing is an intervention designed to quickly connect people to housing and services.
Assistance for the Most Vulnerable
Sometimes people need longer-term rental assistance and services supports to achieve stability. Permanent supportive housing is a proven solution to homelessness for the most vulnerable.
Designing a Crisis Response
An effective crisis response system can help people quickly exit homelessness.
Increasing Employment and Income
Programs designed to assist low-income people increase their income are critical to supporting housing stability.
Lay the Groundwork
1. Set Community-Specific Goals
2. Cultivate Political Will and Partnerships
3. Ensure Racial Equity in All Decision-Making
4. Reduce Administrative and Regulatory Barriers
Strengthen the Rehousing System
5. Reduce Waiting Periods for Housing Placements
6. Guarantee Paths to Housing from Unsheltered Homelessness
7. Recruit, Support, and Retain Landlords
8. Leverage Support Services
Expand the Affordable Housing Supply
9. Support Innovation in Development
10. Coordinate Federal, State, and Local Housing Resources
District 3 candidate Ryan Taylor: In recent years our homeless population has increased. Luckily, our community has private organizations working on this such as Turlock Gospel Mission and United Samaritans Foundation. The City of Turlock needs to get more involved and become proactive towards people in need. In 2020 residents passed Measure A, which stated the funding would be used to find working solutions to help the unhoused. The City Council could be thinking about providing spaces for the unhoused to safely take care of basic human needs — such as access to public restrooms and access to resources. We need a workable solution for unhoused residents to access necessities, housing, and resources while living in a location that is accessible for them. We need to ask the unhoused what they need.
District 3 candidate Kelly Higgins: Let me begin by saying I have had numerous experiences with people labeled “homeless” or “vagrant.” Good and bad, mostly bad, experiences. It is because of these incidences, I have met with hardworking citizens in Turlock who are running effective programs that are geared towards helping people in our community … who want to be helped. The latter part of this statement is a really important description of the bigger problem. Not everyone surviving/not surviving on the streets, in our parks, on some of our lawns and in the doorways of our downtown businesses wants to be “rescued.” Therein lies the part of the issue.
We can only find success in helping those who want it. The people who do want the assistance Turlock already provides, know where they can find it. Places like the Turlock Gospel Mission, We Care and the Salvation Army are focused on compassionately serving the community with meals, beds, hope, counseling, education, work experience and most importantly the Gospel. There are also other groups, including Community Assistance Response Engagement (C.A.R.E.) who, along with the Turlock Police Department, are out in the community ensuring the safety and security of all of Turlock’s residents by addressing the mental health issues of those on the streets.
I recently participated in a ride along with a TPD Officer and witnessed firsthand a concerned response to a man who was passed out behind a building on a hot summer day. It’s important to note this officer was not called to the man but rather noticed him and took action. The man was treated with caring respect by the officer who was prepared to administer aid if this had been an overdose situation. Once awakened, the man sat on the curb and cried while doing two things – trying to hide his drug paraphernalia and showing the officer and paramedics, who were quick to respond, other evidence of a serious medical condition. Encouraged to be taken to the hospital of his choice by those attending him, this man steadfastly refused. Observing all this gave me an enhanced perspective and even deeper respect for our law enforcement and EMS. It also proved to me that some people on the streets are there by choice.
I know there are cities surrounding us that are implementing tactics to relocate people who get dropped off within their city limits. These people are driven out of town, not helped with their needs. This is an easy, uncharitable way to handle the situation. We need to find better, more modern and permanent solutions where the processes and outcomes show we as a people value the lives of all others.
Ten years ago, Gov. Newsome said he was going to end homelessness in California within 10 years. It’s worse now. It’s worse because law makers are making it harder for us to handle the many challenges we face locally. This being said, there are new plans in progress through the joint efforts of the City and the TPD who are working within the laws established. I look forward to learning more and doing my part when and where appropriate.