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Downtown business owners decry homeless blight
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William Schell Jr. stands with his belongings on the corner of South Center and F streets, where he and his girlfriend Brandy Cane spend their days. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR/The Journal

A welcoming, pristine atmosphere is vital to the success of any downtown area, and lately, property owners in Turlock feel that the heart of the city is being threatened as a result of increased homeless and vagrant activity.

Business and property owners alike in downtown Turlock say their locations are plagued by drug use, property damage, vandalism and more from the city’s homeless on an almost nightly basis, and during the day, potential customers are hesitant to walk into stores as vagrants loiter on Main Street. These concerns resulted in a meeting on Thursday between the Turlock Downtown Property Owners Association, the City of Turlock and homeless service providers Turlock Gospel Mission, We Care Program and United Samaritans Foundation, where grievances were shared and solutions were discussed.

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A cart of possessions sits in Central Park in full view of businesses and downtown visitors. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR/The Journal

“If we’re not on the same page, if we’re not working together, very little is going to get done and I think that’s what we’ve seen in the last year or two – homelessness, vagrancy…it’s happening all over the west coast,” TDPOA President Michael Camara told the Journal. “We need to be able to come together and say what each body has done to contribute to the solution of this particular problem because it’s pernicious, it’s growing, it’s prevalent and it needs to be addressed.”

The 2018 Stanislaus County homeless count reported that there are 155 unsheltered individuals in Turlock – down from the 2017 total of 248. Despite the drop in numbers, a visible increase in transient presence downtown has resulted in business owners often finding sleeping individuals, used needles and even human excrement at their alley-facing back doors.

The Turlock Gospel Mission’s Day Center provides the homeless with a safe place to stay during the day, but the organization’s shelter only caters to women and children. When the Day Center closes, homeless men flock to wait for the We Care Program’s shelter on South Broadway to open, where beds are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The We Care shelter’s proximity to Red Brick Bar & Grill has caused problems for the business, co-owner Ed Samo said, but he also pointed out that most causing trouble downtown aren’t necessarily homeless – they’re just trouble makers.

“We find syringes all over the place. Our Dumpster area…I won’t even allow my staff to go back there and clean it anymore. They use it as a restroom,” he said. “It’s not the homeless…it’s the vagrants and the transients.”

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Main Street Antiques co-owner Lori Smith describes some of the issues vagrants have caused for her downtown business during a meeting with service providers and City of Turlock officials on Thursday. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR/The Journal

The 155 homeless individuals accounted for in the Stanislaus County report made up 54 percent of the total number of people contacted by surveyors. That means that 46 percent of those asked were out on the street but aren’t technically homeless, said City of Turlock Director of Economic Development and Housing Maryn Pitt.

“Almost half the people that we go out and make contact with really aren’t a person experiencing homelessness,” Pitt said. “They’re probably vagrant, they may be drug addicted and all kinds of things, but they’re not homeless.”

Camara reiterated that it’s vagrant citizens creating many of the problems business owners are dealing with downtown, not homeless individuals.

“I think it’s important that we differentiate between homelessness and vagrancy. It’s not a crime to be homeless, per say, but not everyone that is here downtown is homeless…they’re here for other reasons and not all of them are necessarily law-abiding citizens,” he said.

The misconception of vagrancy versus homelessness affects the homeless community, said Brandy Cane, who has been living on the streets of Turlock for 19 years.

“I think they tend to group us all in the same group…it’s to a point where they automatically see you and they hesitate,” she said. “They think that you’re just like this set of homeless people or that set of homeless people without taking the time to separate everyone.”

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Individuals, either homeless or vagrant, spend days and nights in Turlock’s parks, including Denair Park on East Main Street. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR/The Journal

Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar told the Journal that the issue of homelessness can only be tackled through collaboration, which stakeholders took a step towards on Thursday.

“In Turlock, we don’t have enough (officers) to deal with all the problems that we’re dealing with…people want us to put (homeless individuals) in buses and move them out. They’re human beings…your police officers aren’t going to do that,” Amirfar said. “We need to have accountability for everyone to do what they’re supposed to do, and a complete follow through…a department where everyone is combined.”

Though the Turlock’s homeless service providers already meet with City officials once a month, the two entities will now form a collaborative with TDPOA and meet regularly to work on a solution for the downtown vagrancy problems.

“As a community, we need to work on a unified front to tackle this problem because if we don’t, anyone that goes to San Francisco or comes back from Seattle and knows what’s happening in those cities, we don’t want to visit that here. We don’t want to replicate those issues here,” Camara said. “There needs to be transparency and there needs to be accountability for all agencies.”