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When homelessness and business collide
homeless business 1
Jenny Roots Sousa, owner of Rustic Roots on Main Street, was part of a group of downtown business owners who took photographs of homeless people sleeping in doorways, and of the trash and excrement that was left behind to post on a Facebook page (JOE CORTEZ/The Journal).

EDITOR’S NOTE — The Turlock Journal is publishing a series of articles on the issue of homelessness in the city. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at this complex problem from different perspectives: law enforcement, city government, non-profit and faith-based groups, neighboring communities, and the homeless themselves. Today, we continue our series by talking directly to business owners whose establishments are impacted by homelessness. 


Most of us can avoid homeless people. Whether on the street or in a park, we can turn away and pretend we didn’t see what we just saw.

Turlock business owners deal with homelessness on a near daily basis.

They cannot turn away.

Since the homeless encampments were broken up earlier this year, a chunk of Turlock’s homeless population no longer is situated in one general area. Like dandelion spores in the wind, they moved into the city’s core and roam the streets.

It’s not that there’s more homeless in Turlock — the point-in-time survey conducted earlier this year by Stanislaus County indicates the city’s homeless population actually decreased by 10 percent. They’ve just become more noticeable.

No longer out of sight and out of mind.

Despite the decrease in overall numbers, many business owners believe the problem has gotten worse. Some say the homeless people have gotten more aggressive and, seemingly, more dangerous.

This past summer, a group of downtown business owners began collecting photographs of homeless people sleeping in doorways, and of the trash and excrement that was left behind. Those photos were posted on a Facebook page.

It was a cry for help.

“We just wanted to call out the city,” said Jenny Roots Sousa, owner of Rustic Roots on Main Street. “Like, hey, hello, we could use a little help here; we can’t deal with this on our own anymore.”

The Journal talked with four downtown business owners: Roots Sousa, Ken Kelleher, owner of the Gallery Finesse on Center Street; Jennifer Jensen, co-owner of Main Street Antiques; and Lisa Wilson, owner of Main Street Footers.

All have similar stories. All have seen homelessness often and up close. All think it’s on the rise. All are desperate for solutions.

“You definitely see new faces every week,” said Wilson. “For the most part, it’s not an issue for us, but we do sometimes get homeless people going through our garbage cans, looking for something to eat.”

Wilson is the farthest north on Main Street, while the other three establishments are closer to Golden State Boulevard. 

“I don’t want to come off like a whining prima donna, but we spend every single day fending this off,” said Kelleher.

As an example, he points to the area behind his gallery, a lot off Main and Golden State, where he can see the residue of makeshift campfires on the asphalt outside his back door.

“I’m scared to death about the behavior around here,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life working for myself, and I could lose everything on planet earth because of what’s allowed to go on downtown.”

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Downtown business owners took photos of homeless individuals over the past several months to highlight the negative impact they often have on customers feeling safe to shop and dine downtown (Photo contributed).

Jensen said she’s almost become numb to the situation.

“Yeah, I’ve become a little calloused, I guess,” she said. “Sometimes, they’ll come into the store and they might yell at me, but then they move along.”

Nail technician Jill Hart has worked at Swoon Salon and Spa for seven years. For the past five, she’s sat 10 feet from the sidewalk, looking through a massive window. She has a front-row seat to the happenings downtown.

“I’ve seen people peeing in front of trees, walking around naked, breaking things,” said Hart. “I really feel for these people. I’ve given them leftover food, blankets … but at some point, I feel like I’m enabling, because some of them simply choose to live this way. It’s sad.

“I’ve had customers who sit at my station and are constantly looking over their shoulders. And I’ve had to walk some to their cars. If it ever gets too bad, we just shut the door and lock it. I’ve got my mace in my drawer.” 

Roots Sousa also tried to be compassionate, going so far as to hire homeless people to perform odd jobs for her. But she’s also been threatened with violence. 

“One guy came in and threatened to shoot me in my face,” she said.

Like Hart, she’s seen it all.

“I’ve seen people having intercourse, I’ve seen people engaged in oral sex, I’ve seen people masturbating. I mean, come on, nobody wants to have their kids see something like that.” 

Nicole Larson is Turlock’s Council member from District 1, in which all these businesses are located. She’s as frustrated as her constituents.

“I’m frustrated that there hasn’t been a lot of productive measures executed at the local level,” said Larson, who is not seeking reelection in November. “Also, there’s a level of misunderstanding about how much we can do local level and what can be done at the county and state levels. It’s going to take coordination of all three jurisdictions, addressing the problem enough so that the results are visible.”

To illustrate the need for cooperation, Larson pointed out that the City of Turlock does not have its own mental health services department. Stanislaus County, meanwhile, does.

“I couldn’t say to my constituents that we’re going to create a mental health department in Turlock. There’s no way. They wouldn’t want their tax dollars going for duplicate services.”

Hence the need for cooperation and a coordinated strategy.

“The homeless spectrum has gotten so large that when we say ‘homeless,’ who are we talking about?” said Larson. “Are we talking about somebody who’s down on their luck and can’t afford housing? Are we talking about somebody in dire need of mental health services? Or are we talking about somebody not wanting to partake in available social services and would rather take advantage of the legal conflict we’re in with the Boise decision.”

Martin v. Boise (Idaho) was a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that basically states homeless people can’t be cited for anti-camping ordinances if there are not enough shelter beds to accommodate all the homeless within a city.

In other words, homelessness cannot be criminalized, and that brings about restrictions for local law enforcement in regards to homeless calls.

“We care deeply about their businesses succeeding and thriving in Turlock,” said Police Chief Jason Hedden. “I enjoy downtown myself. My wife and I spend a lot of time there. We understand their frustration and I want them to know that we’re working hard to do everything we can within the law to help them and help their businesses be successful.”

In the meantime, business owners are left to handle the situation, oftentimes, on their own.

“Look, I’m not trying to throw shade on mentally ill people,” said Kelleher, “but why do the business owners of Turlock have to deal with this?”