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Overnight parking lots, warming centers, bus tickets proposed as homelessness solutions

From the Homelessness in Tracy series
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The city of Tracy hopes to have a program to help homeless people in town within the next few weeks, with solutions that include opening certain parking lots to people who live out of their cars, creating a warming center to get people out of the elements during the remaining weeks of winter, and providing rides to places where people can take advantage of county services.

The council’s unanimous agreement on the set of proposals came after a 1½-hour discussion, which included council concerns that the third proposal, added by Mayor Robert Rickman, should include more than simply buying people bus tickets and pointing them toward Stockton.

The city has hosted a series of workshops on homelessness, the latest Jan. 14. A plan developed through that process is due for council review March 17. On Tuesday, a council subcommittee of council members Rhodesia Ransom and Dan Arriola proposed two emergency measures.

Arriola said they had originally expected that the city’s consultants would deliver the plan by December, so these emergency measures were intended to provide some type of city service to fill the gap.

“During the last forum, one of the biggest comments we heard from the community was that we were not being responsive enough, particularly given the harsh winter conditions that we have,” Arriola said, adding that the death of a homeless man near Larch Road and Holly Drive in October underlined the urgency of the matter. “For me, it’s utterly unacceptable that we allow such things to happen in our community.”

He said the city could suspend fines for long-term and overnight parking on certain city-owned land and could also open a warming center.

“This is not a shelter. It will be a temporary area until we vote on the strategic plan,” Arriola said, adding that the city would have to put out a request for proposals to ensure that a center allowing overnight stays would include access to restrooms as well as security.

Ransom added that the warming center could also be a hub for delivery of services to homeless people who need them, and it would direct people away from city parks, where campsites continue to pop up as people have nowhere else to go.

Tracy resident Tim Silva said that while he doesn’t work with any homeless support groups, he often engages with transients, people who have had devastating financial setbacks caused by illness or job loss, and people with addiction issues.

“I ask them what they need,” he said. “They said that what they need in order to even get a job and get off the streets, they need a place where they can say, ‘This is my residence.’ Because when you apply for a job, you have to have a residence.

“They need a place where they can clean themselves up and be presentable for an interview,” he added. “They don’t want a handout. They want a hand up to bridge that gap.”

Jennifer Rowell, who is on the board of directors for San Joaquin County Continuum of Care, supported the recommendation, but she cautioned the city to remember that anything done within the next few weeks would be a temporary solution.

“My reservation is that people will then think that we’re done. With the strategic plan coming, I really want to put it out there that this is a Band-Aid — and it’s a great Band-Aid, and it’s a Band-Aid that I fully, fully support 100%. But it will not take the place of longer-term planning, and I really want to keep it on the front burner as long as we can.”

City Manager Jenny Haruyama said that she has up to $50,000 that she is authorized to spend without further council review, and she estimated that security and portable toilets for a warming center and overnight parking lot until March 17 would come in at about $25,000 or less.

Dissent on the council emerged when Rickman criticized the process that put this discussion on Tuesday’s council agenda as an emergency matter. Though the city’s strategic plan has been the topic of public workshops since November, the mayor objected to having a council ad hoc committee directing city policy.

“You have two members — pretty much one member, Councilmember Ransom — driving this homeless issue, and you’re having meetings that, let’s be realistic, all of the public doesn’t know about. Only a fraction of the people knows that these things are going on,” Rickman said.

“This is what it’s moving toward, and this is what’s going to come back in March, is a homeless shelter or something here in Tracy, and I think the public has a right to know, and a right to debate and the right to voice their concerns if they have that concern.

“Certain parts of it might be great, but you’re taking the democratic process out and you’re just killing transparency.”

He went on to state that the ad hoc committee process omitted solutions other council members would offer. In particular, he offered a suggestion that the city could send people who need services to cities where those services are already offered.

“I know they just built a nice big shelter in Stockton that, what I heard, is not even close to being filled. What about if we give somebody bus tickets?” he said. “If it’s going to be 35 degrees tomorrow, why don’t we have a designated spot, they can come, get a ticket and go to that shelter? Wouldn’t that be a better solution immediately?”

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young said that if the council had solutions on the table, it was obligated to act.

“We need to do something right now, whether we’re partnering or actively going to churches or whatever that normally give out food and do things. I don’t know if anyone has offered their parking lots for a certain amount of time. I don’t know what those conversations have been or if they’ve even happened,” Young said. “My concern here tonight is to not go in circles but to look at these two things that have been asked of us and make it as simple as possible. What options do we have?”

The upcoming strategic plan is the outcome of a series of workshops, including public meetings Nov. 19, Dec. 4 and 7 and Jan. 14, with the most recent meeting at City Hall attended by about 60 people. That meeting was when people stressed that the onset of winter had highlighted the city’s lack of action so far.

Ransom responded to Rickman by pointing out that the council has had plenty of opportunity to discuss the issue at the workshops and at its regular meetings.

“The perception that’s continuously painted is very false, and it’s disturbing that we continue to say these things are not very public,” she said. “We started this meeting with an executive summary that basically explained that, on Jan. 21, Councilman Arriola asked that the subcommittee discuss the emergency ordinance at the Jan. 29 meeting and bring it back to the council today.

“This was no surprise to anyone here, but we continuously mischaracterize that to the public,” she added. “Everyone knows what is going on. We have these meetings very publicly.”

Ransom went on to ask City Attorney Leticia Ramirez if it would even be legal for the city to deal with its homelessness issue by sending people to another city for services.

“Just to be clear, there are legal implications, obviously, as we’ve all discussed, that it has to be consensual and they want to go,” the city attorney responded, adding that there must be a partnership between the city, the county and service providers. “If we are trying to facilitate getting someone to a homeless shelter in another part of the county, we also need to do our due diligence if that is even acceptable. We don’t want to put someone in a more negative or bad spot. We have to confirm whether there is something on the receiving end that is open and available to them.”

Ransom agreed and added that spending city funds on bus tickets might be redundant.

“The service providers already offer that, and when they’ve made those phone calls to Stockton, you’ve got a family sitting in front of you saying: ‘I don’t have anywhere to go. I don’t want to go to Stockton. I’m from Tracy. Why isn’t there anything here?’” she said. “Bus tickets are already available in the community.”

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 209-830-4227.

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