Rent control? A tent city? Residents call on Merced leaders to solve its homeless problem

Homelessness, Merced’s top issue

In a series of town hall meetings, Merced residents made it clear that solving the town’s homeless problem ranks at the top of their list.
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In a series of town hall meetings, Merced residents made it clear that solving the town’s homeless problem ranks at the top of their list.

In a series of community meetings this week, the residents of Merced made it clear that solving the town’s homeless problem ranks at the top of their list. Officials say they’ll even consider a tent city.

Merced City Council held three town hall-style meetings, which are less formal than regular meetings, this week in three separate locations. Among the complaints about bad roads and a lack of activities for children, again and again residents brought up the homeless.

The number of people living on the street in Merced County is 514, according to a tally from January 2018, an increase of 13.2 percent from the previous year. Merced had 310 homeless people, eight fewer than a year before. Numbers from a January count have not been made public.

Homelessness was fresh in many residents’ minds this week following the city’s effort to clean up an encampment near Santa Fe Drive and Highway 59.

“You’re moving them from one location, having them move to where? Nowhere,” Merced County resident Renee Davenport said at Wednesday’s north Merced meeting. “I understand that all these plans are in action for the B Street (project) and all this, but that’s maybe years down the road. It isn’t now.”

Merced and Merced County have partnered to build 120 affordable housing units near B Street and Childs Avenue, including 30 for people who are homeless. City staffers estimated the number of homeless moved this week was closer to 50.

While forcing the people to leave the encampment, employees also cleaned up 41 tons of trash, according to staffers.

At the Tuesday meeting in central Merced, resident Aubry Johnson said she’d like the city to do something about the large number of homeless people at Applegate Park. That stretch of bike path near the outdoor amphitheater can feel unsafe with the number of people loitering there during most hours of the day.

“I feel like that could be super beneficial to have events for the UC or the junior college to get our youth out more,” she said.

Merced residents commonly complain about aggressive panhandling in town, and some downtown business owners say they are fed up with cleaning human waste from the areas around their shops.

A survey conducted by the city two years ago showed homelessness as a top priority over public safety and economic development, staffers said. Homelessness and housing was also highlighted recently by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Merced Mayor Mike Murphy.

Merced Police Chief Chris Goodwin has said the police department’s most common call relates to transients.

Residents also suggested a “drunk tank” so intoxicated homeless people can sober up somewhere other than a hospital bed. Multiple people asked leaders to consider rent control as a means to prevent more homelessness.

City leaders acknowledged Thursday that Merced needs solutions soon.

South Merced business owner Ernie Amezcua noted that homeless encampments spring up around town when enterprising homeless people build makeshift houses.

“If we can find in the city — or outside of Merced a little bit — some property, we can make a small city for the homeless,” he said at Thursday’s meeting in south Merced.

That idea may not be far from a reality.

City Manager Steve Carrigan. said he and some councilmembers visited a homeless camp in Modesto recently approved by the city and Stanislaus County. One hundred tents were erected under a bridge.

City leaders are looking at the viability of a tent city in Merced.

“What we’re doing right now isn’t working,” Carrigan said.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined the Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.