Mark is a homeless man who spends his days in the city park at Ralston Tower.
Wednesday morning, he lounged on a sleeping bag on the park's lawn.
"We've made friends with some of the people in Ralston Tower," he said, referring to the senior retirement residential facility downtown. "One lady — we call her ‘Mom.' We talk to her every day."
For most of the past year, Mark claims, he and wife Rita had the park to themselves. That changed a couple of months ago when the city closed tiny McClatchy Square to clean it up.
Complaints from business owners that the homeless had taken over the square — often urinating or worse in it — compelled the city to regulate its use. The city imposed restrictions on the park, opening it daily to the public only from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and making it available otherwise on a reservation basis.
Consequently, some of the homeless folks who once frequented McClatchy Square simply have moved up I Street to Ralston Tower Park. While some Ralston Tower denizens might, indeed, get along with Mark and Rita, they aren't necessarily enamored with a dozen or so others who now make the park their daily crash pad.
Ralston Tower resident Jim Emerson said he calls police about three times a week after 10p.m. (the park's closing time) because some of the visitors are out of control because of alcohol or drugs.
It's a problem, Emerson said, because the tower's residents are elderly and some fear the homeless in the park.
"We have little old ladies who park across the street and don't like to walk through the park because of them (the homeless)," Emerson said.
Park security comes up at every residents meeting, he said.
There have been a few isolated incidents in which some nonresidents have followed residents into the building and were escorted out by resident managers, said Wilma Wilson. She's the regional manager for the Retirement Housing Foundation, which operates Ralston Tower.
"It hasn't posed a direct threat," she said. "But it is a concern. What if there's an open apartment? Many of our residents are frail."
Tower seeks to own park
Two years ago, she said, Retirement Housing officials approached the city about taking over the park and perhaps having it deeded to Ralston. The park then would become private property that Ralston staff members could maintain. If it's private, they would be well within their rights to call the police to remove intruders.
"We have not gotten very far with it," she said, adding that her company is still interested.
Julie Hannon, the city's parks and recreation director, doesn't recall such a meeting.
"But they may have discussed it with someone else at that time," said Hannon, who took over as department head 14 months ago. City officials met Wednesday with police, the city attorney and maintenance staff to discuss enforcement and other issues.
Hannon said city officials have cautioned some Ralston Tower residents about giving food and clothing to the homeless if they are concerned about their presence in the park.
"You don't feed the bears," said one Ralston resident who gave only his first name, Don. "Don't give 'em money or food."
First-yearCityCouncilman Joe Muratore played a major role in regulating the use of McClatchy Square and said he is open to ideas that make these tiny parks more alluring to the 15,000 people who work in downtown Modesto each day.
"I would be supportive," Muratore said, of a deal that would turn control of the park over to Ralston Tower.
If this looks like a trend — restricting use of these small parks to force the homeless out — that's because it is. McClatchy Square and Ralston Tower Park attract the homeless because the parks are downtown. Many homeless begin their days with breakfast at the Modesto Gospel Mission and then head downtown, where they get meals at The Salvation Army.
Not solving the problem
Benevolent church groups have used the smaller parks to distribute food, which becomes a problem because they don't have restrooms.
Simply bouncing the homeless from park to park does nothing to solve homelessness. Muratore said he favors coordinating services for the homeless at parks such as Beard Brook, which is near the Gospel Mission and has restrooms.
Others, such as 40-year-old homeless man Richard Baker, want the city to establish tent cities on vacant properties.
"I've been looking for months just for a place to stay," said Baker, an unemployed cook who said he has been living on the streets for the past eight months. "Everywhere we stay, we get tickets. We have fines. Then, when you go for a job, it's held against us because we can't afford to pay the fines.
"When we try to recycle to make some money, and the next thing we know, we're getting in trouble for trying to recycle. Instead, why don't they open up a tent city on one of those huge lots, where we all could stay. The police would be able to come through and check for drugs."
That's not likely to happen, Muratore said.
"I'm not interested in a tent city," he said. "At McClatchy Square, it was a small group of 10 or less. If you took the people at Kewin, Tower (at 17th and G) and Ralston parks, you might get 50 altogether. How do their needs get met in a way that also meets the needs of the downtown?"
Meanwhile, Mark, the homeless man who once considered Ralston Park his personal estate, just longs for the good old days.
"It can be crowded," he said.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.