Homelessness was front and center as Merced Mayor Mike Murphy gave his State of the City address on Friday.
Murphy address — the third he’s given in three years — came with the typical highlighting of recent investments in the town, as well as his often repeated phrase “city on the rise.”
But the largest chunk of his presentation focused on people languishing on Merced’s streets — a problem that’s greatly impacted downtown businesses, parks and many neighborhoods across town.
He said solving homelessness would take “big thinking” and would require both a compassionate approach and a citywide effort. The town had 310 homeless people during a tally in 2018, eight fewer than a year prior.
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“Otherwise good people have shared with me that their solution would be to round them all up and take all of their belongings, or something worse,” Murphy said. “Or somehow have our first responders turn the other way when they are the victims of violent crime or experience a drug overdose.”
He pointed to the New Year’s Day slaying and first homicide of 2019 in Merced County that took place near East Mission Avenue and Highway 99, according to investigators. Someone opened fire, killing 55-year-old Gardner Leroy Keys, the Merced County Coroner’s Office said.
Keys was inside of a tent in a homeless encampment when he was fatally shot. “That isn’t who we are as a people. That isn’t who we are as a city,” Murphy said. “That isn’t what makes us great and I don’t tolerate that type of hate towards another human — housed or unhoused.”
One new effort Murphy said he will push would be a homeless court. The mayor visited one such court, which are often inside a shelter, in San Diego with Merced County Superior Court Presiding Judge Don Proeitti, Judge Paul Lo, a member of the District Attorney’s Office and others.
“There are a number of homeless individuals that are trying to turn their lives around. They have been working on their addictions and obtaining employable skills,” he said. “When it comes time to find a job, old warrants and fines that these people will never be able to pay — and that the court will never see — become the roadblock to getting a job and re-entering society.”
Homelessness remains a problem statewide. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget includes $500 million in grant funding to address homelessness, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis. Part of that money is intended for shelters, which Newsom said should be exempted from some environmental review because of the severity of the state’s homelessness crisis.
Murphy went on to say residents of Merced who give money to panhandlers are also a part of the problem.
“On the other end of the spectrum, we have a large community of humanitarians that only want to alleviate suffering when they see it. They see an opportunity to help and they spring into action,” Murphy said. “Some of these efforts, although good intentioned, are in fact counterproductive. Working through an established non-profit is much more helpful than providing money or food on the streets”
The text of the speech and a recording are expected to be placed on the city’s website, www.cityofmerced.org, in the coming days.