Merced County law enforcement and organizations that deal with homeless issues are collaborating to ask residents to be extra safe and avoid giving to panhandlers while shopping during the holiday season.
“In the past there probably hasn’t been (this) much cooperation,” said Norm Andrade, Merced’s police chief. “We realize, in hard times, we all have to come together.”
Representatives of the Merced Police Department, California Highway Patrol, Merced County Sheriff’s Department and the Citizens for a Safer Merced committee held a joint news conference in Bob Hart Square to announce an effort dubbed Operation Santa ‘Cause: Because Merced Cares.
The news conference covered an array of topics, some of which were loosely connected to holiday shopping.
To try to increase safety for shoppers, Andrade said law enforcement agencies have agreed to lend each other a hand. For example, CHP officers or sheriff’s deputies might pass through busy city parking lots, and Merced police could return the favor by keeping an eye out while on the highway.
“This will help us make a (greater) difference, I think,” he said. “And it’s always better when you get the community behind it.”
Police are reminding shoppers to be aware while shopping and not forget “the little things,” such as locking a car door, closing a purse or watching the surroundings. Other crime prevention tips include placing money or credit cards in a front pocket, locking doors and windows before leaving home, putting lights at home on a timer and leaving a TV on so it appears someone is home.
CHP Capt. Sam Samra noted that criminal activity increases during the holidays. He recommended that shoppers park in well-lit areas, put items in the car’s trunk or out of view, and shop in groups.
Samra said the number of cars stolen in Merced County – more than 330 this year – tends to increase during the cold months. He said drivers should not leave a car unattended while it is running to warm up.
Samra stressed safety while driving by eliminating distractions such as cellphones. He said pedestrians should be aware of their surroundings and wear light-colored clothing. This year, eight pedestrians have been killed after being hit by cars in Merced County, and 13 have been injured.
Merced County Undersheriff Tom Cavallero also spoke during the news conference.
Business owner Jim Abbate, who is a member of the citizens committee, on Tuesday reminded shoppers of an effort in town to curb panhandling.
Business owners and nonprofits, with the support of the Merced Rescue Mission, rolled out a plan in the summer to squash panhandling by encouraging people to donate to charities rather than directly to people who ask for money.
A Hand Up – Not a Hand Out encourages Merced residents to carry business card-sized pieces of paper marked with places where panhandlers can get free food and shelter. The Merced Rescue Mission and some area businesses supplied the cards.
“It does us no good in the city if people are allowed to sleep wherever they want when the truth is they’d be better off if we would push them to our shelters,” Abbate said.
Last month, the Merced City Council made it a misdemeanor to use certain medians in town for anything other than a place to wait while crossing the street. The law is set to go into effect on Jan. 3, according to Andrade.
The ordinance applies to the medians of Auto Center Drive, Olive and Yosemite avenues, as well as G, M, R and V streets. The city has added Martin Luther King Jr. Way north of Highway 99 to that list.
To get A Hand Up cards, visit the Merced Rescue Mission at 1921 Canal St. or call the organization at (209) 722-9269.