MERCED — After months of deliberation, untold hours of discussion and the creation of a homeless committee, the Merced City Council decided Monday night that the city's largest illegal homeless camp must go, and in months rather than years.
"There is an end to the campground coming," said City Councilwoman Michele Gabriault-Acosta.
The exact timeline for the disbanding of the camp at Black Rascal Creek and Santa Fe Drive was not decided Monday night, but a majority of the council agreed the city's "no camping" ordinance must be enforced.
Councilman Josh Pedrozo, who made the motion to disband the camp, suggested the timeline should be six months. Councilman Bill Blake said that wasn't enough time for the city to implement an evacuation plan that will succeed. Blake proposed a phased plan that would take a year.
The majority decision, opposed only by John Carlisle, went against the spirit of the final report presented to the council by the Citizens' Homeless Committee, which was set up to help the council bring about a solution to the camp. That report recommended, among other things, that a temporary campsite be set up.
Renee Davenport, a homeless advocate who was vice chairwoman of the committee, said she agreed with Blake on the timeline, saying Pedrozo's idea was too swift. "For Pedrozo to think it can be taken care of in six months is unrealistic," she said.
The council voted for one of the committee's key recommendations: a 10-year plan. If successful, such a plan could bring federal money to Merced and help solve the homeless problem. The council voted to allow the use of $30,000 to help pay for a full-time employee working within the Merced County Association of Governments to write the plan with other agencies.
Many on the council seemed to agree more with the Citizens' Homeless Committee's minority report when it came to their decision on the camp.
Committee Chairman Jim Sanders, a former councilman, wrote the minority report, arguing that campgrounds should not be legitimized by the council.
"No matter how people came to be without a home, I think it is unsound, indefensible and inhumane public policy to further consider legitimizing camping within the city limits," he wrote. He went on to say that the city has underused resources and shelters, and that is where the homeless should be staying.
The large crowd that filled the council chambers had drastically opposing views on the homeless and Merced's camps.
Wil Hunter, an Atwater resident and president of the Merced Irrigation District board, said the camp was an embarrassment and the city should disband it so "bums" stop scaring people as they shop in downtown Merced. "Today you are coming to a crossroads. Are you going vote to allow this to go on or are you going to stand up and make a vote that really counts?"
Jim Abbate was even more outspoken in his opposition to the camp and what he called the "social outcasts" living there. He said you can hardly drive into Merced without seeing someone asking for a handout.
Others saw things differently. Candice Adam-Medefind, director of a faith-based homeless program in Merced, said a camp would be the best solution for the time being. Kicking them out will only remove them from plain sight, not solve the problem, she said.