Some of Merced's homeless choose camps over shelters; city maintains it's illegal

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 10, 2013 

— It's a sunny winter afternoon at one of Merced's many small-scale homeless camps. At 16th Street and North Highway 59 where the Union Pacific railroad tracks cross Bear Creek, about eight people maintain a modest encampment.

The camps consist of several blue tarps, a barbecue and a colorful sea of blankets, clothes, bike parts and tools. Several small dogs tear around the obstacle course of collected items, playfully barking at each other or anyone who approaches.

"You look at the people that live in a shelter or under a store front where they're nice and toasty for the moment, but then 8, 7 o'clock runs around and they've got to go," said camper Monica Villa.

People like having somewhere to call home, Villa said, who moved into the camp with her pit bull Dory after the city shut down the Occupy Merced site at Court House Park more than a year ago. "My big deal is, can you find people a safe place to live and get it organized?" she said. "The biggest thing is getting rid of the trash."

The city of Merced last year had about 248 homeless individual not sleeping in shelters, according to data collected during the annual Merced County homeless count and survey.

Several years ago, the local homeless population created a tent city at Olive Avenue and North Highway 59 dubbed the Black Rascal Creek camp. However, the city, under pressure from nearby businesses and residents, decided to shut down the camp.

Breaking up the camp hasn't made the homeless situation go away, said City Councilman Bill Blake. "It's become more noticeable lately," he said. "We emptied that camp out about two years ago, and they all moved into the center of town."

Today, the city's homeless population is spread throughout Merced, according to city data. A number of small encampments have recently popped up, concentrated downtown on 16th street, in Applegate Park, Black Rascal Creek and several other locations.

City Councilman Josh Pedrozo said he doesn't regret voting to break up the camp, calling it an "eye-sore" that reflected poorly on the town. "We have services available," he said. "I will always vote to provide services to the shelter, but people who don't want the help, we have to figure out what to do with them or they need to move out of our community."

Homeless residents looking for a temporary place to sleep have several options, including the Merced County Rescue Mission on Canal Street and Merced Community Action Agency on D Street.

Last year, about 130 people in the city of Merced used transitional housing or the shelters.

Homeless resident Blue Conway said he and his girlfriend have stayed at the shelter in the past. But he said he's looking to secure a spot at the camp off 16th Street where Villa is staying.

Sleeping at the shelter "you have to deal with some personalities," he said. "And it's like we work hard and we just want to go to sleep."

Conway, who's taking welding classes at Central Valley Opportunity Center, said his main concern is finding a somewhat permanent place for his girlfriend to sleep. "If I could make a tent for her with some blankets where she's warm, if she's OK then I'm happy," he said. "Until we get settled it's stressful. We don't have a place out here yet, but we're going to try probably this weekend."

For some city officials, this is unacceptable. "All we can do is go in and take their stuff and tell them to move along," Pedrozo said. "Camping in the city is technically a code violation. We just don't have enough officers out there to break them up."

City Councilman Mike Murphy said he is opposed to tent cities, in large part because of the public health and other concerns. "We have a no-camping ordinance," he said. "It's unlawful to stay overnight on city property."

Forcing people to move isn't solving the problem, said Blake, who supports providing basic services and a place for the homeless to camp. "If they're provided a space to camp I think we'd see they'd go out of our busy residential (areas) and our downtown," he said. "They just don't have a place to go."

Conway agrees.

"The misconception is from people coming from City Council and looking down on this," he said. "They come and they can say this is just nothing, this is just mess and garbage and you messed up all this area. Yeah, it's messy, but someone is trying to live here."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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