village’ highlights homeless crisis in valley
Will city’s strategy spread to Merced?
By JONATHAN WHITAKER
January 10, 2019
On a dark, cold and rainy January day,
John Sabala looks and sounds like an eternal optimist.
The 27-year-old Modesto native drives his
modest sedan down a winding road that leads to a small park,
and just beyond, a large homeless encampment unlike any
other in this part of the Central Valley.
“I’m just buried in this work,” Sabala
tells the Times. “It’s crazy to see so much
of this happen in the town that I’m from. It’s
definitely expanding, but it’s also been working out
pretty good for the most part.”
He’s talking about “Beard Brook Village,”
located near a city park, along with bike and walking trails,
between the Tuolumne River and the Ninth Street Bridge that
leads to the neighboring city of Ceres.
This site is home to nearly 450 people of all ages and
cultural backgrounds, living in hundreds of tents that are
situated close together on a sloping ridge that overlooks
a service road.
For more fortunate residents of this rich agricultural
valley, this particular tent village is an astonishing sight
of poverty and despair, where whole families can be seen
trying to survive during the wet rainy season.
There is an estimated 20 children living at the site with
the youngest being age 4 or 5. There are senior citizens.
Disabled people. And there are dozens of cats and dogs too.
However, there is something else that keeps people like
Sabala smiling and energized to make a difference and create
a better day for the homeless population that continues
to grow exponentially, day by day.
That something is organization.
Sabala is part of a small task force of volunteers who
work to spread compassion and support for the downtrodden
— even if it’s late in the evening, or during
the holidays, or on their own birthdays. They communicate
with each other, and also the village dwellers, through
social media sites, text messaging, and video chat.
They identify needs and follow up with donations. The trunk
of Sabala’s car is filled with clothing, toiletries
and winter survival gear.
“It’s good to have these things on hand,”
he says. “Sometimes you see a young kid walking with
no shoes, or a woman who needs heavier clothing to stay
When he’s not walking through the camp handing out
supplies, Sabala helps his fellow vollunteer Anita Garcia
with Crock Pot Tuesdays. That’s the day when they
set up tables and bring hot soups and other food to the
village. They say they feed about half of the people on
Yet the volunteers are only part of the Beard Brook Village
Since there’s such a large population of homeless
people in one place, social workers frequent the location
to provide much-needed services in order to help lift some
off the ground and into permanent housing and employment.
“I personally have seen a few families move out of
here,” said Sabala. “I’ve seen people
go from not having a car to finding one, and I’ve
seen people move into apartments or into rented rooms.”
Meanwhile, police officers conduct daily patrols at the
park, and they placed a secured surveillance vehicle on
site with video cameras. This is part of the Modesto Police
Department’s Beat Health Unit, much of which focuses
on working with the homeless.
There are several portable toilets on site, including a
couple that are wheelchair accessible, and they include
hand-washing units with soap and paper towels.
There’s also a large emergency tent for homeless
people who arrive at night with only the things they can
No one is sent away, they say.
A handful of the volunteers who help organize camp life
are actually homeless themselves and live in the village
tents. They reportedly have a small “council”
of homeless leaders for the village too.
And then there’s a woman named Michelle.
Amazingly, among her efforts, Michelle gathers dirty clothes
and damp bedding material from individuals and families.
Then she helps bring the laundry to a landromat in town
that donates washing and drying services. They are also
able to keep detergent and other supplies at the location
for future use.
Michelle appears cheerful and happy to help out despite
being homeless for several months after being forced out
of an apartment living situation.
Recognizing the crisis
Perhaps the most important aspect of Beard Brook Village
is the fact that city and county government officials have
been involved in its creation, and they apparently see it
as a work in progress.
Back in late September, a grand opening for a dog park
in the same area was canceled because of the city’s
growing homeless crisis.
The City of Modesto decided that a portion of Beard Brook
Park would serve as the site of a city-sanctioned homeless
encampment. The decision followed a federal court ruling
stating cities cannot cite someone for unlawful camping,
if there aren’t available beds in a shelter.
“I think our city leadership wants to focus on this
crisis now, put all our time and energy and resources into
this crisis, at that park,” city spokesperson Thomas
Reeves said at the time.
Officials also stressed that the encampment was temporary.
It would move when the city finds a building that can serve
as a shelter.
At the time, about four months ago, there were some 25
people at the location, according to Sabala, and some tents
scattered about, but it didn’t take long for the larger
village to take shape with hundreds of homeless people.
A recent editorial by the Modesto Bee cited some positives
about the location, but also stressed that it should be
temporary while a better solution should be pursued.
According to the Bee’s editorial board, “Since
Beard Brook Village has been open, ‘man down’
calls for assistance to the homeless in Modesto have fallen
by a third. Nuisance calls have fallen by a comparable amount.
“Still, camping in the park can be only a temporary
solution. Modesto and the county must find better solutions
– including some that have already been proposed.
We applaud plans to work with the Salvation Army to double
shelter beds. The Gospel Mission has provide shelter and
food for 50 years. And there is no good reason some of the
homeless can’t be housed in the mostly vacant, county-owned
Scenic Hospital – especially those most intent on
turning around their lives.”
Village on the move
Indeed, Beard Brook Village is only projected to last a
few more weeks because the makeshift encampment is running
out of room.
Plans are in the works to move the homeless campers again,
to a wide stretch of level, more dry land about 200 yards
away, under the expansive Ninth Street Bridge. They are
calling the new location Power Point Gateway.
There’s already a trailer on site where the county's
outreach and engagement team are providing services and
registering those who want a tent and a camp site at the
Sabala told the Times that he and other volunteers are
taking training courses that have been made available to
people who want to help prepare and organize the new “village.”
While there’s hope and solutions under discussion,
Beard Brook Village has not been immune to drugs, crime
and even violence. Tent dwellers told the Times they have
to be careful of property theft. Illegal drug activity in
and around the village is common, they say.
A few weeks ago, a man was stabbed after a fight between
at least two of the campers. The victim, who was taken by
ambulance to a Modesto hospital, was stabbed multiple times,
including in the chest, but the man managed to survive.
Another man suffered a cut to his hand while wrestling the
knife away from the suspect.
Modesty and Mercy
Forty miles is not that far away.
That’s the distance between Modesto and Merced.
Over the past decade, Merced has struggled to deal with
homeless camp issues. The City Council approved a no-camping
ordinance in 2010, and went on to close down at least three
large homeless encampments, including the “Tent City”
on Santa Fe Drive, the parking lot of a church near M Street
and Merced College, and a field between the 16th Street
Bridge and the Auto Mall.
Today, small camps have popped up in some of those same
places, in addition to areas along the Highway 99 and Highway
50 corridors that go through town.
Some local activists have criticized Merced officials for
moving the homeless population around and around, and into
more hidden areas, without looking at the root causes of
the problem, and without allocating money and resources
to create a large day shelter or organized campground.
Merced resident Renee Davenport is one of those activists
who has spoken up at City Hall and at local homeless forums.
She went along with the Times during our visit to the Beard
Davenport was visibly impressed with Modesto’s attempt
to deal with their homeless problem.
“After walking through the Beard Park Village, I
cannot stress the importance of the same effort our city
fathers should be doing to take people off our street corners
and all the underpasses in town,” she said. “Is
this a perfect solution — absolutely not. But until
housing for homeless is secured and built, this is working
in Modesto with the blessings of both the city and the police.
The homeless people our supported by the police, wonderful
volunteers, and agencies. We don't have to go to San Diego
to see what they our doing for their homeless. Just take
a stroll through Beard Park Village in Modesto.”
Davenport and Sabala — two volunteers in two different
valley cities — exchanged contact information and
social media addresses. Davenport was interested in keeping
informed on potential strategies and progress made in Modesto.
Sabala was excited to assist Davenport and getting information
to the Times, especially if it turns out that there is a
need for a tent village in Merced.
Currently, city and county officials in Merced are working
to bring expanded shelter services, a “navigation
center” and some permanent supportive housing units
along B Street and near the Behavioral Health center in
At this week’s City Council meeting, leaders were
given an update on the proposed Childs Avenue and B Street
Affordable Housing Project. The project is a mix of affordable
housing, housing for homeless and veterans housing, with
supportive services available to residents, and signifcant
road and sidewalk improvements. City officials will be working
in the coming months to secure a targeted $3 million of
government funding, including HUD grants, over the next
three years to help get the project going in cooperation
with a developer and a non-profit manager.
The Merced County Rescue Mission is also fundraising to
build a new campus center on land just south of the fairgrounds,
including some units to house residents in need.
Stay tuned for more on these projects, and more, in upcoming
editions of the Merced County Times.