Tuesday, July 5, 2016
[San Joaquin County] Fitzgerald: SJ sheriff takes on homelessness with Honor Farm proposal
Blog comment: this article references a 2015-16 grand jury report.
Sheriff Steve Moore on Thursday proposed tackling San Joaquin County’s homeless problem with a special homeless court and a helpful “program center” on jail grounds.
The idea, the sheriff said, is to channel homeless lawbreakers into programs that treat their problems. So people can be guided to housing and independence.
“The goal here is not to arrest people, give ’em a rap sheet,” Moore said. “The goal is to get them into a process … so if they truly want to get out of the life they’ll be able to do so.”
Moore envisions transforming several empty Honor Farm barracks into transitional housing. Also a “service center” staffed by county agencies and community nonprofits.
Several U-shaped Honor Farm barracks comprising hundreds of beds stand empty at the jail compound. More will become vacant in coming years as a new facility is built.
Under the sheriff’s proposal, a homeless person convicted of misdemeanors could choose the program center instead of jail.
There, screening would identify causes of the person’s homelessness. The court would order appropriate programs such as sobriety or mental health treatment.
Center staffers, meanwhile, could help people obtain driver’s licenses, settle unpaid fines and untangle other barriers to jobs and self-sufficiency.
The barracks would not be locked, Moore said. But rule-breakers and people who fail programs would serve out sentences in jail.
Moore says the proposal, if enacted, would free up jail space and get at the heart of the homeless problem. He acknowledges he has yet to get buy-in from all players.
“We need to build the consolidated political will to do this, number one,” he said. “Number two, there has to be the ongoing commitment by all the municipalities and the community-based organizations to do funding and provide the appropriate services.”
Moore’s proposal answers a 2015-16 grand jury report that blistered the county’s approach to homelessness for its “glaring lack of centralized coordination.”
But not all initial reaction was favorable.
Bill Mendelson, executive director of Central Valley Housing, expressed disappointment that Moore hadn’t formed his policy with broader input from experts.
Also, “Using the Honor Farm, even if it’s voluntary, I believe is going to feel like a jail setting to a lot of folks,” Mendelson said.
Barracks can be remodeled so they lose that hoosegow feel, said county Supervisor Chuck Winn, who supports the idea. And, Winn said, the location has advantages.
“We don’t have to worry about neighborhood opposition,” Winn said. Also, the center is close to the county hospital. The jail kitchen can serve food. The jail laundry can wash clothes.
“There’s nothing perfect in the world,” Winn said, “but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances.”
Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva was not familiar with Moore’s proposal. But, “From hearing it, I think it sounds pretty promising.” Silva added, “I’m grateful that an elected official is sticking their neck out there for a difficult problem.”
Silva recently put forward a proposal to centralize the homeless and services in a vacant Stockton motel. His rival for the mayor’s job, Councilman Michael Tubbs, proposes tiny houses and services as a partial solution.
Moore’s proposal is somewhat out of sync with policy being created by the San Joaquin County Homelessness Task Force, a group led by Supervisor Kathy Miller.
Though the task force does not expect to roll out policy until November, it has moved away from solutions that involve 100 percent government funding.
“Sometimes a full government program is not the best,” said Miller. Some county officials visited New York to study programs that use private funding to get homeless people on their feet. Then the state, county and city give graduates jobs.
“That may be a more sustainable model,” Miller said.
June 30, 2016
By Michael Fitzgerald