Editor’s Note – Turlock Journal is publishing a series of articles on urban homelessness. Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at this complex issue from different perspectives: law enforcement, city governments, nonprofit and faith-based groups, neighboring communities, and the homeless themselves. Today, we continue our series talking directly to business owners whose businesses are impacted by homelessness.
Most of us can avoid homelessness. Whether on the street or in the park, we can turn around and pretend not to see what we just saw.
Turlock business owners deal with homelessness almost every day.
They can’t turn around.
Most of Turlock’s homeless population is no longer located in a general area due to the dismantling of the homeless camp earlier this year. Like dandelion spores in the wind, they entered the heart of the city and roamed the streets.
Not that there are more homeless people in Turlock—a point-in-time survey conducted by Stanislaus County earlier this year showed that the city’s homeless population actually decreased by 10%. They just become more noticeable.
No longer out of sight or out of mind.
Despite the overall decrease, many business owners believe the problem has gotten worse. Homeless people have become more aggressive and seem more dangerous, some say.
Last summer, a group of downtown business owners began collecting photos of homeless people sleeping at their doorsteps, as well as photos of the litter and feces they left behind. The photos are posted on the Facebook page.
It’s a cry for help.
“We just wanted to evoke the city,” said Jenny Roots Sousa, owner of Rustic Roots on Main Street. “It’s like, hey, hello, we can need a little help here; we can’t figure this out on our own anymore.”
The Wall Street Journal interviewed four downtown business owners: Roots Sousa, Ken Kelleher, owner of Center Street Gallery Finesse; Jennifer Jensen, co-owner of Main Street Antiques; and Lisa Wilson, owner of Main Street Footers.
There are similar stories. Homeless people are often seen up close and personal by all. All thought it was on the rise. All are desperately seeking solutions.
“You definitely see new faces every week,” Wilson said. “For the most part, it’s not a problem for us, but sometimes we do have homeless people rummaging through our trash cans looking for something to eat.”
Wilson is the northernmost location on Main Street, while the other three venues are closer to Golden State Avenue.
“I don’t want to get away like a whining heroine, but we’re fighting it off every single day,” Kelleher said.
For example, he pointed to the area behind the gallery, far from the banks of the Main and the Golden State, where he could see the remnants of a makeshift campfire on the asphalt outside his back door.
“I’m terrified of what’s going on here,” he said. “I’ve worked for myself my whole life, and I could lose everything on earth for what the city center allows to happen.”
Jensen said she was almost numb to the situation.
“Yeah, I think I’m a little calloused,” she said. “Sometimes, they’ll walk into the store and maybe yell at me, but then they’ll just move on.”
Nail Technician Jill Hart has worked at Swoon Salon and Spa for seven years. For the past five years, she has sat 10 feet from the sidewalk, looking out through a huge window. She occupied a front-row seat at the downtown event.
“I saw people urinating in front of trees, walking around naked, breaking things,” Hart said. “I really feel for these people. I gave them the rest of the food, the blankets…but at some point, I felt like I was enabling because some of them just chose to live that way. This is sad.
“I have some customers sitting at my station, constantly looking over their shoulders. I have to walk some to get to their car. If it gets too bad, we just close the door and lock it. I have it in my drawer My mace.”
Roots Sousa also tried to be compassionate, even hiring homeless people to do odd jobs for her. But she was also threatened with violence.
“A guy came in and threatened to shoot me in the face,” she said.
Like Hart, she has seen it all.
“I’ve seen people have sex, I’ve seen people have oral sex, I’ve seen people masturbate. I mean, please, nobody wants their kids to see anything like that.”
Nicole Larson is a Turlock Council member from District 1, where all these businesses are located. She is as frustrated as her constituents.
“I’m frustrated that a lot of productive measures have not been implemented at the local level,” said Larson, who did not seek re-election in November. “Furthermore, there is a certain level of misunderstanding about how much we can do at the local level and what we can do at the county and state level. This will require coordination across all three jurisdictions to adequately address issues so that results are visible.”
To illustrate the need for collaboration, Larson noted that the city of Turlock does not have its own mental health services. Meanwhile, Stanislaus County does.
“I can’t say to my constituents that we’re going to have a mental health department in Turlock. Impossible. They don’t want their tax dollars going to duplication of services.”
Therefore, a collaborative and coordinated strategy is required.
“The scope of homelessness is so great that when we say ‘homeless,’ who are we talking about?” Larson said. “Are we talking about people who are out of luck and can’t afford a home? Are we talking about people who desperately need mental health services? Or are we talking about people who don’t want to be involved in the social services that are available and would rather use our Conflict of Laws in Issy’s ruling.”
Martin v. Boise (Idaho) is a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that basically states that if there are not enough sheltered beds in a city to accommodate all the homeless, homeless Returnees cannot be cited as anti-camping ordinances.
In other words, homelessness cannot be criminalized, which would restrict local law enforcement from handling homeless calls.
“We care deeply about the success and prosperity of their businesses in Turlock,” Police Chief Jason Hedden said. “I love downtown myself. My wife and I spend a lot of time there. We understand their frustration and I want them to know that we are trying to do everything we can within the law to help them and their businesses Success.”
At the same time, business owners are often left to deal with the situation themselves.
“Look, I’m not trying to cast a shadow over the mentally ill,” Kelleher said, “but why do business owners in Turlock have to deal with this?”