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Homeless encampments along railroad set to be cleared out
Tent city proposal met with opposition
When Stanislaus County cleared out a homeless camp under the Golden State Boulevard overpass in 2018, many individuals moved their belongings to downtown area parks. Union Pacific and Caltrans are set to clear out encampments near their properties in Turlock over the next several weeks (Journal file photo).

Starting on Monday, Union Pacific will begin a clean up project on their property along the railroad tracks in Turlock and it will include the eviction of several homeless camps, which has residents, business owners and city officials asking the same question: where will they go?

One idea of establishing an outdoor low-barrier shelter on property behind Turlock Gospel Mission was suggested, but was met with general dismay from multiple downtown business owners, who thought the location could have a negative impact on their businesses.

The city and the county have no say in whether or not the encampments around the railroad tracks are broken up because the land is private property owned by Union Pacific. Turlock Fire Marshal Mark Gomez said there is an estimated 100 people in the encampments.

The proposal for an outdoor low-barrier shelter was put together by community advocate and Helping Hands Ministry Director Liz Padilla. The shelter was proposed for the corner of 1st and D streets, which is owned by the Turlock Gospel Mission, and would have been managed by Helping Hands Ministry. It would have allowed between 50 to 70 people to set up tents on the property and stay 30 days with an option to extend their stay 30 days at a time up to six months, as long as they were in good standing. Turlock Gospel Mission was prepared to offer meals, access to showers, toilet and hand-washing stations, garbage services and storage, while Helping Hands Ministry would provide security and run the day-to day operations.

The proposal also included a plan to try and get the homeless individuals to utilize the shelter services at Turlock Gospel Mission and We Care and connect them with programs that could help them out of homelessness.

While the proposal seemed to address the immediate need for a solution before the railroad begins the cleanup project, it was not the answer downtown business owners were hoping to hear at a community meeting Friday morning.

“Are more people coming because you’re adding beds?” asked one business owner. “Of course. You’re putting a Band-Aid on something.”

Turlock has two homeless shelters. The Turlock Gospel Mission has beds for 59 women and children, with the requirement that guests check in by 4 p.m. and go through the intake process if it is their first visit. The We Care shelter has beds for 49 men. Turlock Gospel Mission’s day center also is open to homeless individuals as an emergency night shelter when the temperature dips below 40 degrees or if it is raining.

The idea of the low-barrier shelter was proposed as a way to mitigate some of impacts of the evictions and a way to avoid some of the same issues that arose when Stanislaus County cleared out a homeless camp under the Golden State Boulevard overpass in 2018. When the county evicted that camp, a number of the individuals re-settled at Broadway Park, which sparked complaints from residents and business owners, but the police department had few options to mitigate the issue because of a court ruling.

The Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to prosecute homeless individuals for sleeping on the streets when there is no shelter available.

The case arose out of a lawsuit filed in 2009 by six homeless individuals against the City of Boise in Idaho. Boise officials had passed an ordinance that banned people from sleeping or camping in buildings, on streets and other public places. The six individuals, who had been convicted of violating the ban, claimed in their lawsuit that the enforcement of the ban violated their constitutional rights.

The Court of Appeals agreed and said the ban amounted to criminalizing sleeping.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the judges wrote in their summary.

The question of where these homeless individuals will resettle to remains and the number will only grow because Union Pacific and Caltrans will be continuing the work of clearing out the property near the railroad tracks and along the freeways through March and possibly into April.