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Soiseth: Aggressive solutions to address homelessness in Turlock
Mayor Gary Soiseth
Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth - photo by Photo Contributed

Over the past few months, we have all seen a more visible presence of homelessness, transient loitering, and outright illegal activity, predominantly in Turlock’s parks and public spaces. I am thankful for the service providers, concerned community members, and City staff that have been and will continue to meet and tackle pressing issues surrounding homelessness long term, but the time to act is now—we cannot keep seeking perfect solutions at the expense of good ones; we need to adopt the set of pilot initiatives listed below, measure the success, make changes, and continue to move forward as a city.  

Homelessness is not purely a law enforcement issue to be solved by our police officers. We need to rethink our parks, a few ordinances, and our partnership with service providers. The Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, WeCare, and others service organizations are offering some of the most professional, compassionate, and efficient services in the region for those struggling with homelessness, addiction, or financial hardship. It's my view that the city can play a renewed role in supplementing this assistance and more effectively helping the least, the lost, and the lonely, but also making sure our public spaces remain open and safe for all residents and visitors to enjoy.

To start, we must ensure private property is no longer stored in the public right of way and should establish alternative options for our homeless population. Our city can provide a location for our visitors to store their belongings in a dignified manner throughout the day while increasing the health and safety of our public spaces. Those that do not utilize these alternatives  will no longer have the option of moving their belongings from park to park once they are cited. Instead, I am proposing the enactment of an ordinance that will limit the time an individual has to comply with the removal of their property from public spaces from 7 days to 24 hours; if not removed in this timeframe or stored in provided locations, the property will be removed altogether. Additionally, we will be increasing our enforcement of animal licenses and bicycle licenses, first through educational outreach and then with enforcement.

While these proposals may seem harsh, we need to make sure we are ensuring that our public spaces can be used for all residents and we must start taking a hardline approach with those that refuse services in our shelter and instead choose to use our parks as their own personal dumping ground.

We have an obligation to take care of our own residents that are having issues with homelessness, substance abuse, or financial hardship; however, Turlock will not be known as a place that ignores the rule of law and we will not take on the burden of those that come to Turlock seeking handouts. We need to provide the option to re-unite those that are homeless with families in their own hometowns. Through an expansion in scope of the current contract with the Turlock Gospel Mission, I am proposing we work hard to identify the locations of our visitors, make contact with their loved ones in their own hometown, and provide bus tickets or transportation to reconnect them with their families and loved ones.

While we can increase the number of ordinances, we must also look at the current physical environment that leads to loitering in our public spaces, from increased lighting in our parks to the limiting of park hours for those that are proving to be magnets for illegal behavior, like Denair, Central, and Broadway Parks.  

To minimize the impact on our police officers to enforce these regulations, I’m proposing the addition of two positions within Neighborhood Services that would not only assist with graffiti and weed abatement, but would also enforce rules in our parks, on our sidewalks, and in our public spaces. Over the next 90 days, our current municipal codes that outlaw certain activities like drinking alcohol in our parks, allowing dogs off their leash, storing private property in the public right of way, using shopping carts for transport of personal property, and any form of aggressive panhandling will all be strictly enforced.

Turlock will also be joining forces with the other “Highway 99 Mayors” of Modesto and Ceres to officially request the authority to address encampments along our highway and railroads. This “no man’s land” of enforcement allows individuals to camp along our highways and railroads while entering into our cities to participate in illegal activity. This pattern needs to stop, not only to decrease the illegal activity occurring in our city during the day, but to also protect those that camp in these illegal areas from speeding cars and trains.

I ask all residents to join the Council at an emergency meeting on Thursday, July 19 at 6 pm in Central Park to further discuss and hopefully adopt these measures, immediately and aggressively addressing the issues surrounding homelessness. I join my fellow residents in a sentiment of compassion for those in need. If you are a Turlock resident and you are down on your luck, we will take care of you. But if you are coming here from out of town or from neighboring cities to participate in illegal behavior, we will not tolerate it. Period.