“Where am I supposed to go?”
That’s the question that falls from the lips of Tina Rice as City of Turlock workers document her possessions piled up alongside the sidewalk at Broadway Park.
“I’m an old woman with health problems, one leg and in a wheelchair,” Rice explained. “I can’t just pick up my stuff and move along. And it’s not like I really have possessions. Everything I have with me are the things I need every day.”
The anxiety Rice was feeling Tuesday afternoon was shared by about 50 other people camping at Broadway Park as they learned from city workers that they were in violation of city ordinances and would need to move from the area, or at least find another place to store their possessions.
“There’s a lot of stress out here,” said Michelle Pratt, who has been staying at the park. “We just want a place to rest.”
The vast majority of the homeless individuals at Broadway Park moved there on Nov. 15 after Stanislaus County dismantled their encampment that was set up under the Golden State Boulevard overpass. Stanislaus County posted a notice at the encampment on Nov. 5 stating the tent city would have to be dismantled and removed within 10 days because the encampment was “a health and safety concern for both those occupying the right-of-way, the motoring public and for the road maintenance crews from the Department of Public Works.”
“When the people were moved from the overpass it was inevitable that they were going to come into the city and it’s unfortunate we don’t have more beds available for the homeless populations,” said Turlock Police spokesman Sgt. Russ Holeman.
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 shelter has been averaging about 40 guests a night, but now that the weather is not only colder, but wetter, Executive Director Christian Curby expects they will be reaching capacity on a routine basis.
The We Care shelter has beds for 49 men and has been at capacity routinely since the nights have gotten colder, and regularly has to turn away men seeking shelter because they have no more available beds, said Executive Director Maris Sturtevant.
The tent city erected at Broadway Park has exasperated the patience of many of the home and business owners in the neighborhood and it has largely been their complaints that has brought the police out to the park.
“Often times when the police are out there it’s generated from the homeowners that live in the area complaining about what is happening at the park,” Holeman said. “A lot of the issues we deal with citywide are being compounded within that small area.”
The primary complaints have been with trash and human waste. One homeowner, who didn’t want his name used for fear of reprisal, said “people living in the park are now defecating and urinating wherever they can in this residential neighborhood.” The same homeowner said the neighborhood has become littered with trash, including the Styrofoam containers used by some people who have brought food out to the homeless.
Pratt said the homeless community at the park had been trying to keep things clean, but their efforts had been hampered because the city has locked the Dumpster up and closes the public restroom around 3 or 4 p.m. The restrooms are also closed on Sundays.
“It’s like the city is setting us up to look worse to the public,” Pratt said.
For several years the city parks have operated on summer and winter schedules, with the restrooms closing earlier during the colder months when it gets dark earlier. Prior to that the public restrooms were frequently the scene of numerous crimes, including sexual assaults and drug use, Holeman said.
On Wednesday afternoon the City of Turlock decided it was in the best interest of those at the park and those living in homes around the park to keep the restrooms open at Broadway Park 24 hours a day, with no weekend closures. City staff will be stocking and cleaning the restrooms on a daily basis, said Turlock City Manager Robert Lawton.
In addition to the issues being raised by the park neighbors, the tent city is in violation of two city ordinances that the police department does plan on enforcing, but one other ordinance has been suspended because of a court ruling in September.
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.
Turlock’s municipal code states it is unlawful for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities or use camp paraphernalia in any park, on any street, or at any public parking lot or public area, improved or unimproved. In September, the City stopped enforcing the ordinance in the wake of the court’s decision and it continues to be suspended. The City does have an ordinance which prohibits people from constructing or erecting “any building or structure of whatever kind, whether permanent or temporary in character” on any public lands, including tents in public parks.
“We are enforcing this on a case by case basis,” Holeman said. “We could go down to the park at two or three in the morning and find many people in violation of the municipal code which prohibits the tents being erected down there. However, we’re not really enforcing it at that time because we’re trying to be empathetic to their plight. It’s three in the morning, it’s been relatively cold at night, sometimes very close to freezing, and to go tell them at that time to take their tent down and expose them to the elements — that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to enforce the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law. What we’ve been doing is to go down there at eight or nine o’clock in the morning and let them know at that time that they need to take their tents down.
“It’s a neighborhood park and it’s surrounded by houses and we want to allow the neighborhood to use that park as it was intended,” Holeman said.
The City also has another ordinance addressing private property stored in public areas, an issue that was arising at Broadway Park. The ordinance states that it is unlawful for any person to store personal property, including camping gear, in any park, street or other public area. The property is considered stored if it has remained in a public area for 24 hours after a written notice requesting removal has been served. If the property is not removed, then the city will collect it and keep it in storage for up to 90 days. If it is not claimed within that 90-day time period it can be destroyed or discarded.
“We can’t ignore the problem,” Holeman said. “It’s not fair to the other citizens of the town to just turn a blind eye to the blatant violations that are taking place right in front of us in their neighborhoods. It’s not that we’re picking on the homeless … they say ‘how much more can we take,’ well the general citizenry feels the same way. We are trying to walk that middle line where we are allowing the general public to use the parks as they were intended, while also being empathetic with the homeless population.”
The City of Turlock’s Neighborhood Services were out at the park on Monday posting notices to have all personal property removed by Tuesday afternoon. Twenty-four hours later the city workers were back at the park with a heavy police escort, and the full intention of removing the property that remained in the park. But issues of whether or not the property had been properly documented arose and tempers among some of the homeless were rising. The decision was made by the city to repost the removal notice and document all the property in and around the park and come back Wednesday afternoon to check on the compliance.
Many of the homeless individuals on Tuesday were moving their property several feet down or to the other side of the park, but that doesn’t satisfy the municipal code, which states it must be removed from the area, Holeman said.
About a dozen tents and tarps were still up and around the park Wednesday afternoon. With the rain coming down and the wind blowing harder, the remaining homeless individuals were trying to decide if they were going to move on and find a new place to stay for the night, or if they were going to take the citation and risk arrest if they didn’t comply. But in the end, they learned they had been given a reprieve, at least until Tuesday.
“This morning, a comprehensive review was completed regarding the logistics necessary to effectively carry out the mission of enforcing the Turlock Municipal Code,” said Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar in a news release. “The removal of illegally stored property will be postponed until Tuesday, November 27, 2018, in the afternoon. All illegally stored property will be removed at that time.”
For Rice, the question of where she was going to go was answered Wednesday morning. After hearing about her particular hardships from the Journal, the Turlock Gospel Mission contacted Legacy Health Foundation, which agreed to fund home health services provided by Covenant Care at Home for Rice during her stay at the shelter. Staff from the Turlock Gospel Mission met with Rice out at the park Wednesday morning, and because of her mounting health issues, she agreed that it was in her best interest to go to the hospital, where she was admitted. Once she is out of the hospital, she will have a place at the shelter and a home health aide to assist her.
Curby said the Turlock Gospel Mission reached out to some of the other women at the park and offered them spots at the shelter, but none of them accepted the offer. The refusal of services is an issue not unfamiliar to the police officers who have been patrolling the park, Holeman said.
“Many of them have been unwilling to accept the help and we can’t force them into these services that are available,” Holeman said.