Shortly before noon Monday at McClatchy Square, cars zipping past on I Street broke the silence.
A homeless man sat in the shade of the downtown Modesto park, a blanket covering his legs, reading a book he said he'd checked out from the county library across the street.
A few yards away, a woman relaxed on a blanket on the grass. She, too, told me she is homeless. In fact, all 10 or so who were in the park at that time live on the streets, their worldly possessions crammed into bulky backpacks on the ground next to them. One man with a long, scruffy beard pushed a baby stroller that has a small, black plastic trash bin strapped to it. He scurried away and left the park as I began to approach him.
Several years ago, this tiny park, with its shady arbors and well-kept rose gardens, became a favorite day-use place for some of the homeless. When that happened, other people quit using it.
Over time, complaints of drug sales, drinking, public urination (or worse), and offensive comments toward passers-by compelled the City Council last week to limit the park to use with reservations only. Critics contend city officials should have police step up enforce- ment to curtail the problems instead of, in effect, semi-privatizing the park.
Some of the homeless I spoke with Monday said a few have ruined it for all of them by causing the kinds of problems that drew scrutiny and, hence, the changes. A few weeks ago, after city officials first discussed publicly the problems at the park, someone pelted the McHenry Mansion across 15th Street with paint-filled condoms and scrawled on the wood fence a message that challenged any change in the status quo.
One homeless man confirmed some of the worst behavior while others said they'd seen little to support the city's claims.
"Drugs, dope and violence -- a lot," said Jerry Al Peters, 59, who hangs out at McClatchy Square every day. "How to we make things better? The homeless steal from the homeless. If the homeless policed themselves, that would be a good thing."
Carl DeGough, a former construction worker, said he's been on the streets for about 10 months and recently began coming to the park.
"I'll come here and take a nap," he said. "If there's an argument, people get together (to stop it). But I haven't seen many problems. Every once in a while, someone will get drunk. I stay out of that kind of thing."
He is among the homeless who begin their day with breakfast at the Modesto Gospel Mission on Yosemite Boulevard, then mosey into downtown. They hang out at the library or the parks until lunch is served at The Salvation Army. Then, in the late afternoon, they head back toward the Gospel Mission for the evening meal.
DeGough doesn't treat the park as turf and said he won't defy authorities.
"If it's causing a problem with the city, something needs to be done about it," he said. "It's up to the citizens. I'm just one person. There are other places to go."
A woman, who refused to give her name, said she feels safer in McClatchy Square than in other parks because it is so visible to the public.
"I like it here. It's nice. I feel like they shouldn't shut it down," she said. "(The police) should just enforce the laws."
She said she visits the park nearly every day and hasn't witnessed the drug deals, drinking or urination the council cited in making its decision. Nor, she said, has she heard any of the homeless people there verbally abuse others who visit the park.
"If I'd have seen any of that, I'd be on them quick," she said. "Once in a while, we'll get a crazy team (group) and we'll tell them to tone it down."
She understands, though, why community leaders and business owners want the homeless out of a park so close to the McHenry Mansion, the McHenry Museum and the library. These are places that attract -- or should attract -- families to the downtown.
"They're scared to come in (the park) because we're homeless," she said. "But I don't panhandle. I won't bother 'em. They're more than welcome in here."
Except now, homeless or non-homeless, they won't be welcome at all unless they book the place in advance and pay a fee.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.