Modesto’s ‘tent village’ highlights homeless crisis in valley
Will city’s strategy spread to Merced?

January 10, 2019

On a dark, cold and rainy January day, John Sabala looks and sounds like an eternal optimist.

The 27-year-old Modesto native drives his modest sedan down a winding road that leads to a small park, and just beyond, a large homeless encampment unlike any other in this part of the Central Valley.

“I’m just buried in this work,” Sabala tells the Times. “It’s crazy to see so much of this happen in the town that I’m from. It’s definitely expanding, but it’s also been working out pretty good for the most part.”

He’s talking about “Beard Brook Village,” located near a city park, along with bike and walking trails, between the Tuolumne River and the Ninth Street Bridge that leads to the neighboring city of Ceres.

This site is home to nearly 450 people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, living in hundreds of tents that are situated close together on a sloping ridge that overlooks a service road.

For more fortunate residents of this rich agricultural valley, this particular tent village is an astonishing sight of poverty and despair, where whole families can be seen trying to survive during the wet rainy season.

There is an estimated 20 children living at the site with the youngest being age 4 or 5. There are senior citizens. Disabled people. And there are dozens of cats and dogs too.

However, there is something else that keeps people like Sabala smiling and energized to make a difference and create a better day for the homeless population that continues to grow exponentially, day by day.

That something is organization.

Sabala is part of a small task force of volunteers who work to spread compassion and support for the downtrodden — even if it’s late in the evening, or during the holidays, or on their own birthdays. They communicate with each other, and also the village dwellers, through social media sites, text messaging, and video chat.

They identify needs and follow up with donations. The trunk of Sabala’s car is filled with clothing, toiletries and winter survival gear.

“It’s good to have these things on hand,” he says. “Sometimes you see a young kid walking with no shoes, or a woman who needs heavier clothing to stay warm.”

When he’s not walking through the camp handing out supplies, Sabala helps his fellow vollunteer Anita Garcia with Crock Pot Tuesdays. That’s the day when they set up tables and bring hot soups and other food to the village. They say they feed about half of the people on site.

Yet the volunteers are only part of the Beard Brook Village strategy.

Since there’s such a large population of homeless people in one place, social workers frequent the location to provide much-needed services in order to help lift some off the ground and into permanent housing and employment.

“I personally have seen a few families move out of here,” said Sabala. “I’ve seen people go from not having a car to finding one, and I’ve seen people move into apartments or into rented rooms.”

Meanwhile, police officers conduct daily patrols at the park, and they placed a secured surveillance vehicle on site with video cameras. This is part of the Modesto Police Department’s Beat Health Unit, much of which focuses on working with the homeless.

There are several portable toilets on site, including a couple that are wheelchair accessible, and they include hand-washing units with soap and paper towels.

There’s also a large emergency tent for homeless people who arrive at night with only the things they can carry.

No one is sent away, they say.

A handful of the volunteers who help organize camp life are actually homeless themselves and live in the village tents. They reportedly have a small “council” of homeless leaders for the village too.

And then there’s a woman named Michelle.

Amazingly, among her efforts, Michelle gathers dirty clothes and damp bedding material from individuals and families. Then she helps bring the laundry to a landromat in town that donates washing and drying services. They are also able to keep detergent and other supplies at the location for future use.

Michelle appears cheerful and happy to help out despite being homeless for several months after being forced out of an apartment living situation.

Recognizing the crisis

Perhaps the most important aspect of Beard Brook Village is the fact that city and county government officials have been involved in its creation, and they apparently see it as a work in progress.

Back in late September, a grand opening for a dog park in the same area was canceled because of the city’s growing homeless crisis.

The City of Modesto decided that a portion of Beard Brook Park would serve as the site of a city-sanctioned homeless encampment. The decision followed a federal court ruling stating cities cannot cite someone for unlawful camping, if there aren’t available beds in a shelter.

“I think our city leadership wants to focus on this crisis now, put all our time and energy and resources into this crisis, at that park,” city spokesperson Thomas Reeves said at the time.

Officials also stressed that the encampment was temporary. It would move when the city finds a building that can serve as a shelter.

At the time, about four months ago, there were some 25 people at the location, according to Sabala, and some tents scattered about, but it didn’t take long for the larger village to take shape with hundreds of homeless people.

A recent editorial by the Modesto Bee cited some positives about the location, but also stressed that it should be temporary while a better solution should be pursued.

According to the Bee’s editorial board, “Since Beard Brook Village has been open, ‘man down’ calls for assistance to the homeless in Modesto have fallen by a third. Nuisance calls have fallen by a comparable amount.

“Still, camping in the park can be only a temporary solution. Modesto and the county must find better solutions – including some that have already been proposed. We applaud plans to work with the Salvation Army to double shelter beds. The Gospel Mission has provide shelter and food for 50 years. And there is no good reason some of the homeless can’t be housed in the mostly vacant, county-owned Scenic Hospital – especially those most intent on turning around their lives.”

Village on the move

Indeed, Beard Brook Village is only projected to last a few more weeks because the makeshift encampment is running out of room.

Plans are in the works to move the homeless campers again, to a wide stretch of level, more dry land about 200 yards away, under the expansive Ninth Street Bridge. They are calling the new location Power Point Gateway.

There’s already a trailer on site where the county's outreach and engagement team are providing services and registering those who want a tent and a camp site at the new location.

Sabala told the Times that he and other volunteers are taking training courses that have been made available to people who want to help prepare and organize the new “village.”

While there’s hope and solutions under discussion, Beard Brook Village has not been immune to drugs, crime and even violence. Tent dwellers told the Times they have to be careful of property theft. Illegal drug activity in and around the village is common, they say.

A few weeks ago, a man was stabbed after a fight between at least two of the campers. The victim, who was taken by ambulance to a Modesto hospital, was stabbed multiple times, including in the chest, but the man managed to survive. Another man suffered a cut to his hand while wrestling the knife away from the suspect.

Modesty and Mercy

Forty miles is not that far away.

That’s the distance between Modesto and Merced.

Over the past decade, Merced has struggled to deal with homeless camp issues. The City Council approved a no-camping ordinance in 2010, and went on to close down at least three large homeless encampments, including the “Tent City” on Santa Fe Drive, the parking lot of a church near M Street and Merced College, and a field between the 16th Street Bridge and the Auto Mall.

Today, small camps have popped up in some of those same places, in addition to areas along the Highway 99 and Highway 50 corridors that go through town.

Some local activists have criticized Merced officials for moving the homeless population around and around, and into more hidden areas, without looking at the root causes of the problem, and without allocating money and resources to create a large day shelter or organized campground.

Merced resident Renee Davenport is one of those activists who has spoken up at City Hall and at local homeless forums. She went along with the Times during our visit to the Beard Park Village.

Davenport was visibly impressed with Modesto’s attempt to deal with their homeless problem.

“After walking through the Beard Park Village, I cannot stress the importance of the same effort our city fathers should be doing to take people off our street corners and all the underpasses in town,” she said. “Is this a perfect solution — absolutely not. But until housing for homeless is secured and built, this is working in Modesto with the blessings of both the city and the police. The homeless people our supported by the police, wonderful volunteers, and agencies. We don't have to go to San Diego to see what they our doing for their homeless. Just take a stroll through Beard Park Village in Modesto.”

Davenport and Sabala — two volunteers in two different valley cities — exchanged contact information and social media addresses. Davenport was interested in keeping informed on potential strategies and progress made in Modesto. Sabala was excited to assist Davenport and getting information to the Times, especially if it turns out that there is a need for a tent village in Merced.

Currently, city and county officials in Merced are working to bring expanded shelter services, a “navigation center” and some permanent supportive housing units along B Street and near the Behavioral Health center in south Merced.

At this week’s City Council meeting, leaders were given an update on the proposed Childs Avenue and B Street Affordable Housing Project. The project is a mix of affordable housing, housing for homeless and veterans housing, with supportive services available to residents, and signifcant road and sidewalk improvements. City officials will be working in the coming months to secure a targeted $3 million of government funding, including HUD grants, over the next three years to help get the project going in cooperation with a developer and a non-profit manager.

The Merced County Rescue Mission is also fundraising to build a new campus center on land just south of the fairgrounds, including some units to house residents in need.

Stay tuned for more on these projects, and more, in upcoming editions of the Merced County Times.

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