Tracy city leaders hope that by declaring a “shelter crisis” in town, the city can expedite the creation of an overnight warming center for the city’s homeless people and possibly gain access to state money earmarked to help California’s growing homeless population.
The Tracy City Council approved the resolution on a 4-0-1 vote at a special meeting Tuesday, with Mayor Robert Rickman abstaining. A strategic plan to address homelessness is due for council review next week. But in ongoing discussions since November, the city has been repeatedly reminded that people who have spent the winter sleeping in cars or tents in city parks seek more immediate help.
On Feb. 4, the council’s ad hoc committee on homelessness, council members Rhodesia Ransom and Dan Arriola, recommended that the city staff begin collecting proposals to build a warming center and also find a place where people who live out of their cars, trucks or vans could safely park overnight. Rickman suggested a third proposal, to transport people to services, such as those operated by San Joaquin County, already existing outside of Tracy.
Assistant City Manager Midori Lichtwardt reported that the city found nobody willing to run the overnight parking, but it did receive two warming center proposals from local faith-based groups. One of those would transport people to a shelter outside of Tracy. The other would be run by a nonprofit group in town that has access to a facility and has experience running such facilities. The latter proposal would also offer safe overnight parking.
Lichtwardt did not name the local nonprofit or identify where the warming center would be located. She did note that it would be in an area where such a facility would be allowed under the city’s zoning laws. Assistant Development Services Director Bill Dean showed the council a map that highlighted those areas, mostly medium- and high-density residential areas in the older parts of town, but also some new areas classified as “planned-unit development.”
Lichtwardt told the council members that if they passed a resolution declaring a shelter crisis, the city could move forward with negotiations with the group. An emergency declaration would also limit the city’s exposure to legal action in establishing the center.
If the city provides some kind of shelter, it will have an answer to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision in a 2019 court case out of Boise that prohibited cities from arresting or citing people who stay overnight in city parks.
Ransom said it’s a needed step to move people from tents in local parks to a city-sponsored shelter.
“This gives us an opportunity to respond and actually enforce our ordinances if we actually have a place for people to go,” she said, citing the city’s efforts to clean up tent cities.
“I definitely want to use this as an opportunity to shut encampments down, connect people to services,” she said.
She added that the city had an obligation to follow up on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Feb. 19 State of the State address, which he devoted to the state’s homelessness crisis. Part of Newsom’s address included the state’s effort to bring in local governments as partners providing services to the homeless.
“As the governor did say in his speech, those opportunities are going to be limited to people who admit there’s a problem,” Ransom said. “We can only blame ourselves if we don’t respond to this growing issue.”
Councilwoman Veronica Vargas supported the resolution as an effort to give the city as many options as possible to address the problem, though she still prefers to focus on longer-term, permanent solutions.
“I would like to see the plan before jumping in and spending reserves or fund balances,” Vargas said. “However, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to make a motion to adopt and declare a shelter crisis so we can move it forward and help this committee facilitate the greater plan to have the permanent shelter, or the permanent cooling center or the permanent warming center.
“I think that we are almost there. I just would like to see if there’s a compromise, to see if we can go forward with the most important part, which is adopting the resolution, and maybe wait a little bit longer, if it’s the pleasure of the council, to just have that comprehensive plan for the shelter so we are not going halfway prepared.
“I just want to make sure that we have a plan that will set us up to succeed.”
Rickman said that he expected the city to be looking over a range of solutions to homelessness next week when the council reviews the overall strategic plan at the March 17 meeting.
“I just don’t understand why it’s here today when we could have probably a bigger audience when people are aware that it’s coming back on that day for a more robust discussion about all of the elements of it,” he said.
He also went back to his position that the process had been driven by the ad hoc committee when he thought that full council discussions should have taken place throughout.
“We’re not even talking about a location yet, right? We don’t know where that would be,” Rickman said. “Don’t you believe the people in that neighborhood, don’t you think they have a right to ask the council questions? Don’t you think they have a right to be noticed on that? If that was coming to my neighborhood, I would like to know.”