Council: Homeless ‘lawlessness’ not OK

Don Gage

From job lay-offs, to incomes that aren’t enough to gain a foothold in Gilroy’s rental market, to having nowhere to go after getting out of prison, to battling drug and alcohol addictions or mental illness, the reasons for homelessness in the Garlic Capital vary from person to person.
Whatever the catalyst that forces individuals and families alike into a life on the streets, “this is becoming a catastrophe,” Mayor Don Gage observed, of the residual issues caused by Gilroy’s homeless population.
To effectively address that “catastrophe,” City Council and Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner decided Monday night to crack down with the adoption of a “no tolerance” stance – set to begin immediately – that would proactively tackle transient-based crimes such as public urination, panhandling, drinking in parks and more drastic offenses including rape, which has occurred in public bathrooms, according to Turner.
Transients not willing to abide by the law will be arrested or cited, instead of being warned and told to move on. The City also outlined initiatives such as advocating for a full-time county case worker in Gilroy, as well as long-term initiatives such as advocating for county funding for rapid re-housing of the newly homeless.
“We wouldn’t just be response-based, which is what we are now,” Turner said.
There are currently numerous local resources in place to help those who have fallen on hard times. Still, with state funding levels for social service programs on the decline, coupled with the GPD’s prediction of more than 500 calls for homelessness-related service issues this year, it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped.
“We’re trying to serve two masters,” was City Administrator Tom Haglund’s blunt appraisal of pleasing homeless advocates on one side of the divide, and on the other side home/business owners who want to see the City get tough on transient troublemakers.
During Monday night’s regular Council meeting, Turner described the homelessness “conundrum” and what steps GPD is taking to “send a message that our community isn’t so inviting.”
Out of the 15 short and long-term initiatives – which include looking at section 18.6 of the City Code that allows people to drink in Las Animas and Christmas Hill parks at certain times of the day – two raised hackles on the dais and among some audience members:
• Police taking a proactive, no-tolerance approach to people committing “quality of life” crimes such as trespassing and being drunk in public.
• Proactively abating homeless encampments in partnership with the City’s code enforcement officers.
“If they’re sleeping under a bridge, who are they hurting?” Councilman Peter Arellano asked. “I don’t want our officers going looking for encampments to break up.”
Arellano added that local officials will “never” be able to solve the transient problem and there are “certain people who want to live under a bridge.”
Turner’s report shows homelessness is actually on the decrease in Gilroy – down from approximately 520 in 2011 to 379 in 2013 – but public unease of GPD’s past approach of “shuffling the problem” around town is rising. Up until now, GPD’s practice has been to move homeless people out of one place and onto another, which ultimately makes the problem go in circles.
“I want to be able to cite the individual and get them into the criminal justice system,” explained Turner.
In the long run, she continued, this will help people get the help they need.
Mayor Pro Tempore Perry Woodward, addressing the dais, reminded Council members of the importance of delineating between homelessness and lawlessness.
“There’s a difference between being homeless and being lawless, and what the chief is telling you is that some of our homeless are lawless,” Woodward said. “I’m not saying we should be heavy handed, but we shouldn’t turn a blind eye by saying we can’t arrest anyone.”
“The headline in the newspaper tomorrow should be, ‘Council decides no tolerance for lawlessness,’ ” he added.
Arellano doesn’t agree with one of the Chief’s plans to lock up all public restrooms in parks at 10 p.m. until the next morning.
“You’re going to cut out some of our citizens who want to use it. Believe me, bicycling sometimes you’ve got to go,” Arellano laughed.
GPD doesn’t have the resources to check in on every single unlocked bathroom at the end of the day, Turner countered, and this has led to problems.
“There are crimes being committed in the restrooms,” she explained. “We’ve had rapes in there.”
The adoption of a “no tolerance” approach concerns Jan Bernstein-Chargin, Chairwoman of the Gilroy Compassion Center – a grassroots outreach organization working towards becoming a year-round homeless shelter – and also of the Gilroy Homeless Task Force.
“Until we fix the question of ‘where are people allowed to sleep?’ then it does no good to keep chasing everybody all around town, all around the county and all around the state,” she said.
A frontline warrior for the rights and needs of Gilroy’s underserved, Bernstein-Chargin explained to the dais the direction she wants Gilroy to take.
“We need to increase the amount of housing for people on really low incomes,” she insisted. “We need to come up with an emergency solution.”
As Bernstein-Chargin sees it, that emergency solution could focus on legal encampments for the homeless that would move periodically. Another option would be to allow people to sleep in their cars in Gilroy – something that is currently illegal.
Councilwoman Cat Tucker asked Chief Turner about the possibility of setting up a legal encampment.
“It’s not my recommendation right now,” was responded Turner, who previously floated the idea.
Gage reminded everyone: the inward-looking methods of the past haven’t really worked. He wants to see a unified effort between local municipalities when it comes to demanding more resources at a county and state level.
“We’ve been doing things the same for a long time,” Gage observed. “Why are we trying to solve the homeless problem by ourselves? Everything’s regional now. We’re not isolated anymore … we need to push our representatives at state and federal levels.”
Some examples of GPD’s ‘no tolerance’ approach to dealing with homeless-related issues:
• Transients committing crimes such as panhandling or urinating in public will be cited or arrested, instead of just being warned and asked to move on.
• Police and code enforcement officers will actively abate homeless camps.
• Police officers will take a proactive approach to homeless-related issues, instead of waiting for calls to come in to dispatchers.
• A proactive shopping cart program that follows through with criminal complaints against those stealing carts from local businesses.

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