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Tent village for homeless a possibility in Turlock

Over a year after they were originally formed, two of the Turlock City Council Homeless Ad Hoc Committees met with downtown property owners, business operators and concerned citizens on Wednesday to discuss potential solutions for the town’s ongoing — and growing — homeless problem.

After publicly decrying downtown Turlock’s plague of drug use, property damage, vandalism and more last May, business and property owners alike formed a collaborative between themselves and City officials that resulted in the creation of four ad hoc committees, meant to address the myriad of problems that homelessness causes: Business & Bathrooms, Housing, Outreach & Engagement and Jobs/Prevention.

This week, the City’s Homeless Ad Hoc Committees on Business & Bathrooms and Housing, headed by Councilmembers Andrew Nosrati and Becky Arellano, held a public meeting to seek input and discuss potential strategies for increasing the city’s temporary shelter options for the homeless. Taking cues from Modesto, both Nosrati and Arellano have suggested Turlock construct a “tent village” for the homeless population, and sought thoughts and ideas from those in attendance at the meeting, whether positive or negative.

A potential tent village, or emergency shelter expansion, would utilize state funding to provide an additional 150 beds for the city’s homeless. There are currently 100 shelter beds in Turlock, although the 2019 Stanislaus County point in time count recorded 245 homeless individuals residing in the city.

The State of California mandates that cities with inadequate shelter for the homeless population utilize emergency funding to provide a place for them, Arellano said; if ignored, Turlock could miss out on additional funds for low-income housing and other means to help the city’s underserved population.

“We’re mandated to do something. We can’t just sit back and let things happen willy-nilly as we have been doing,” Arellano said during the meeting. “This isn’t something that I just conjured up in the back of my mind to get everyone riled up — this is something that’s actually state-funded.”

Whether Turlock will use that funding for a tent village or another means of shelter is still to be determined, but a number of community members attended Wednesday’s meeting to voice their displeasure at the idea.

“There are some people that just say no. Now for those, honestly just tell us what you want us to do as an alternative,” Nosrati said. “If you have suggestions, we’re waiting for them. The town is demanding action and if we continue to just sit back, we know that this problem doesn’t get better. We have to do something.”

While few other options were suggested by those in attendance during the meeting, worries in regards to sanitation at a potential camp, security, access to services, proximity to downtown and the possibility of an influx of transients from surrounding communities were brought up.

“Do we have a reserve fund for all of the lawsuits that are going to flood into the city when public officials and aid workers catch medieval diseases from these types of camps?” asked Ken Lewis, who manages a security company on Golden State Boulevard.

Lewis was referring to recent reports of typhoid fever, typhus, hepatitis A, tuberculosis and staph in Los Angeles, which are being contributed to the area’s large, concentrated homeless populations.

Carr’s Cleaners owner Harry Boucher believes giving the homeless a place to stay is unlikely to help at all.

“It’s just a visual Band-aid,” he said. “It’s not going to fix the problem until we go after the real problem which is drugs, alcohol and mental disability.”

No location has yet been chosen for a possible tent village, although the corner of First and D streets next to the Turlock Gospel Mission has been suggested. 

“Proponents don't seem to understand that homeless numbers are FLUID and constantly increasing. If the intention is to develop a site that can accommodate 120-140 LOCAL homeless/transients, how will the managers of said site identify/separate the organically grown ‘local’ homeless population from new arrivals/opportunistic transients?” Turlock Downtown Property Owners Association President Michael Camara writes in the email. “We can predict the result with great accuracy: if you build for 120-140, far more will travel in from neighboring regions to utilize the camp.”

TDPOA Executive Director Molly Amant said during the meeting that she’s spoken with 10 to 12 people who are homeless in Turlock’s Central Park, who have traveled to the city from Modesto’s tent village, which is overcrowded, in search of a tent here.

This concern, and the others mentioned, were written down by Nosrati and Arellano to be relayed to City staff.

While many were opposed to the idea of a tent village, some who see homeless encampments near their businesses welcomed the idea of a more structured way of life for the transient population.

“On Main Street they’re in your backyard, but on C Street and D Street they’re living in our front yard...we know them, we’ve been with them and we get to talk to them on a daily basis. Sometimes they’re on drugs and scary, sometimes they’re really nice,” said Nick Hackler of Turlock Walnut Company. “Turlock Walnut’s standpoint is that we don’t mind having them still in our front yard, we just want it a little bit more organized...these people truly just want a place to put their stuff.”

A second meeting, this time between the ad hoc committees on Outreach & Engagement and Jobs/Prevention, led by Councilmember Nicole Larson and Vice Mayor Gil Esquer, will be held at 2 p.m. July 11 in the City Council Chambers at City Hall and is open to the community. According to Arellano, input from both Wednesday as well as next week’s meeting will be brought forth during a Special City Council Meeting on July 23, which will feature a workshop discussion between council members but no action item.