The Tracy Police Department is increasing its presence at El Pescadero Park in the aftermath of two assaults in the park’s homeless encampment.

The assignment of the department’s Special Enforcement Team to the park comes as the city takes steps to start up a homeless services division and open an emergency shelter at the north end of town on Arbor Avenue. It also comes as the new city budget calls for seven new police officers, including two who will be assigned as part of the new “Familiar Faces Program.”

Tracy Police Sgt. Mario Ysit confirmed this week that the assignment of the Special Enforcement Team, including a sergeant, a corporal and four officers, including a K9 unit, is in response to two violent assaults at the park over the past few weeks.

One man was injured in a June 3 assault, where a suspect now faces felony charges of attempted murder, carjacking and battery with serious bodily injury. The victim has since been released from the hospital.

In another case a man was shot in the park early in the morning of June 20, and remains in the hospital in critical condition having undergone several surgeries. A suspect in that case faces attempted murder charges and multiple firearms violation charges.

The Special Enforcement Team was assigned to the park as of Tuesday.

“They are essentially an independent patrol team. They go wherever there are problems,” Ysit said. “While the SET team can’t be here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they will be showing a significant presence here. In fact they made six arrests here yesterday (Tuesday).”

He noted that those were mostly drug-related arrests.

“We have an obligation to keep the unhoused folks safe from criminal activity as well,” he added. “Just because they’re here for whatever reason they’re here doesn’t mean they should be crime victims.”

Lt. Miguel Contreras said that as police presence increases at the park the department hopes to emphasize that a larger strategy to direct people away from encampments and toward services is taking place. The Familiar Faces Program, an outreach-based effort modeled on a program in Olympia, Wash., will be initiated over the next 2 to 3 months as the department hires new officers under the city’s 2022-23 budget.

“The goal of the Familiar Faces program is to divert calls for service. If it’s homeless related, this Familiar Faces team can respond. Instead of it becoming a police issue it becomes a homeless outreach type of an issue,” Contreras said. “It’s all about establishing trust.”

The effort is supported by $213,000 grant from San Joaquin County to pay for a van to transport people from encampments to shelters, and computer workstations for caseworkers.

“We’re the first city in San Joaquin County to establish a program like this, to where we’re working directly with San Joaquin County Behavioral Health. We’re actually a sub-awardee of a grant that we worked on with them,” Contreras said.

He added that outreach is under way, with police code enforcement and neighborhood resource officers letting people in the park know that the Arbor Avenue shelter is slated to open in the fall. At the same time, the city will be updating its municipal code to address camping in parks, and is also moving forward on plans to bring a new multi-generational center to El Pescadero Park.

“We have definitely been providing education to them, in the form of pamphlets showing them the design of the shelter, talking to them. We’re out here multiple times a week during out cleanups and during Operation Helping Hands. We’re offering resources to them. Letting them know the timeline of when the shelter is coming.”

Virginia Carney, the city’s new Homeless Services Manager, started with the city last month, bringing her experience as a homeless outreach specialist for Stanislaus County, and as a shelter director with the Salvation Army in Modesto, which operated a 211-bed emergency shelter and a 182-bed low-barrier shelter.

She has been out to the El Pescadero Park encampment, trying to get an idea of the types of services and outreach that will be most effective as the city plans to open a shelter.

“That’s our goal, to get to know the homeless and what their needs are so that we can get them into shelter, and in that process create a program that tailors to their needs,” she said.

Part of her role will be case management as the city plans to get people into the emergency shelter, then a longer-term shelter, and eventually into a housing situation that will lead people toward jobs and independence.

That too is a transition that will take place over the next 2 to 3 months.

“When you have a project of that capacity there’s a staff that has to be trained. That’s a huge undertaking. We’re pulling in resources from the county, from cities that are building programs into this process, and then the affordable housing piece,” she said.

In the meantime, security at El Pescadero Park will still be a priority. In addition to police presence, Contreras noted that private security will be brought in, a process that requires the city to get requests for proposals before hiring a security firm.

“What we’ve learned is that we have to be very selective in who we chose. It you get the wrong security company it can actually cause you more issues if they don’t have the right training, if they don’t know how to deal with people properly. The security company we hire will have to transition from being in the park to going into the shelter.”

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

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