So­cial sys­tem helps main­tain or­der; there are weekly potlucks

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ERIN TRACY etracy@mod­bee.com

Since the city of Modesto sanc­tioned Beard Brook Park as a camp­ground for the home­less more than a month ago, it has taken on a life of its own.

The 250-plus peo­ple who live in the park along Dry Creek that has be­come known as Beard Brook Vil­lage par­tic­i­pate in weekly potlucks, have taken part in events with face paint­ing and rock gar­dens for the chil­dren, and are plan­ning a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner.

Most no­table, though, is a so­cial sys­tem that has de­vel­oped among the campers, in which six peo­ple make up a “vil­lage coun- cil.”

They help is­sue tents and sup­plies to new­com­ers and place them in one of four des­ig­nated sec­tions of the camp, main­tain a food and sup­ply pantry in each sec­tion, ad­dress is­sues and griev­ances from campers, hold weekly meet­ings, and re­cently is­sued a code of con­duct for the vil­lage.

There are some con­cerns among city of­fi­cials who see po­ten­tial prob­lems with a large group of peo­ple who have de­cided to make their own set of rules, but most agree that this struc­ture has helped keep the peace at Beard Brook.

There have been no vi­o­lent crimes there since the camp opened, just a few ver­bal ar­gu­ments and no ar­rests.

“I think it is go­ing bet­ter than any­one ever could have an­tic­i­pated, in­clud­ing my­self; I can­not

be­lieve how smooth this has gone,” said Me­lanie Sla­gle, 39, who has been home­less for five years and had stayed in the air­port neigh­bor­hood be­fore com­ing to Beard Brook. “I don’t know if you took a dif­fer­ent set of peo­ple and did this any­where else if it would work, but it works right here, right now; with these peo­ple it works.”

Sla­gle is the “camp mom.”

She went to the park a few days af­ter it opened and was in­spired to see Modesto City Coun­cil­woman Jenny Kenoyer there, af­ter busi­ness hours, on the phone with city staff ask­ing why the por­ta­ble toi­lets, hand­wash­ing sta­tion and garbage bin hadn’t yet been de­liv­ered. It wasn’t long be­fore crews ar­rived with the items.

“She kinda got me mo­ti­vated; there is some­one ac­tu­ally ad­vo­cat­ing for us, so maybe there should be some­one amongst us to speak (on our be­half),” Sla­gle said. “I came down here to be a voice for peo­ple who re­ally can’t ar­tic­u­late what our needs are.”

The 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled Sept. 4 that prose­cut­ing peo­ple for sleep­ing out­doors be­cause there are not enough shel­ter beds or al­ter­na­tives amounts to cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment and vi­o­lates the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion’s Eighth Amend­ment. The shel­ter op­tions can­not be lim­ited to those run by re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions that im­pose rules or “bar­ri­ers” in­clud­ing pro­hibit­ing peo­ple from bring­ing their pets or stay­ing with their part­ners.

Sla­gle’s camp mom role started as she worked with home­less ad­vo­cates to re­lay the needs of the camp. Vol­un­teer ef­forts and do­na­tions, much of which are co­or­di­nated through a Face­book page for the county’s home­less, came pour­ing in.

“With­out the com­mu­nity sup­port, vol­un­teers and do­na­tions,” Sla­gle said, Beard Brook “would have belly-flopped.”

Sla­gle was re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure food, cloth­ing and camp­ing sup­plies were dis­trib­uted eq­ui­tably. As more peo­ple moved to the park, she re­cruited a “move-in spe­cial­ist” to is­sue camp­ing gear to new­com­ers and find them a spot in one of four sec­tions of the park. Next, “area lead­ers” were ap­pointed as the park was sec­tioned into three, then four ar­eas, and as of Wed­nes­day a “Do­na­tion Com­mit­tee” was started to han­dle sup­plies.

The cen­ter of the park has been des­ig­nated for fam­i­lies with chil­dren, the south end is for peo­ple who pre­fer to func­tion as a group, and the north end, which has two sec­tions, is for “so­los” and those with dis­abil­i­ties be­cause the hand­i­cap porta-potty is at that end.

Each sec­tion has an area leader; in­clud­ing Sla­gle and her “right-hand man,” Bill, there are six peo­ple on the vil­lage coun­cil.

They main­tain the re­strooms and an area pantry, meet at the end of each day to dis­cuss is­sues that have come up and more for­mally ev­ery Mon­day at 10 a.m. to find so­lu­tions to any lin­ger­ing prob­lems or ways to bet­ter im­prove the camp.

At the meet­ings they have dis­cussed is­sues such as whether to al­low ve­hi­cles into the camp and un­der what cir­cum­stances, ways to bet­ter ac­com­mo­date peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, news re­ports about the camp and how they feel about them, and how to set­tle dis­putes, which mostly have been over space.

An ar­gu­ment be­tween two neigh­bor­ing campers re­cently re­sulted in one be­ing moved from the south end to the north.

Within the span of an hour while speak­ing with The Bee on a re­cent day, Sla­gle helped a woman find a pair of chil­dren’s pa­ja­mas at a cloth­ing ta­ble and heard griev­ances from a woman up­set be­cause she was told there was no room for her on the south end but who has since seen oth­ers move in there, and from a man who said an­other camper had taken over his tent.

Most re­cently, the vil­lage coun­cil is­sued a code of con­duct with 10 rules cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and steal­ing to an­i­mal vac­ci­na­tions and quiet hours.

“Orig­i­nally it was two rules: Don’t blow up the spot … and don’t steal,” Sla­gle said. “Blow up the spot — home­less peo­ple know this term — don’t do any­thing that causes neg­a­tive at­ten­tion; fight­ing, loud mu­sic, garbage, things that bring the cops; any­thing that dis­rupts the peace­ful­ness of our vil­lage.”

She said this has had to be ex­plained to some peo­ple new to home­less­ness, so the code of con­duct was cre­ated to bet­ter de­fine those ex­pec­ta­tions.

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said “self­polic­ing can work well,” but “the city does not rec­og­nize that as be­ing a city-spon­sored or city­b­lessed ini­tia­tive.”

He said Beard Brook was opened as a sort of “no-bar­rier” shel­ter to com­ply with the court or­der, so “any time you cre­ate these codes of con­duct, that cre­ates a bar­rier.”

He said he ap­pre­ci­ates that what Sla­gle and the other lead­ers are do­ing is keep­ing the peace but said he doesn’t want it to get to the point where any­one is ex­cluded be­cause of it or that the group de­cides that they don’t have to fol­low the city’s reg­u­la­tions.

Still, many think this is work­ing and is a model that could be car­ried over once a shel­ter is found.

Joetta Phillips,who camps in the fam­ily sec­tion of Beard Brook with her hus­band and 4-yearold daugh­ter, said she feels safe there.

She said that with­out the struc­ture, the place would be “crazy.” “Peo­ple would be jack­ing your stuff and a lot of un­der­handed things,” she said.

Ev­ery day, the county’s out­reach and en­gage­ment team goes to Beard Brook to of­fer ser­vices in­clud­ing help with So­cial Se­cu­rity, vet­er­ans ser­vices, men­tal health care, ad­dic­tion treat­ment and em­ploy- ment.

To ad­dress con­cerns of Hepati­tis A and other com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease out­breaks, which has been a prob­lem among the home­less in other cities through­out the state, the county’s Health Ser­vices Agency is bring­ing a mo­bile clinic to the park on Tues­day, said Pub­lic Health man­ager Anuj Bha­tia. The clinic will of­fer flu and Hepati­tis A vac­cines as well as ed­u­ca­tion about proper hand wash­ing to pre­vent the spread of dis­ease.

And the kind­ness of char­i­ties and in­di­vid­u­als who do­nate their time and sup­plies to Beard Brook con­tin­ues to help the camp thrive.

As for the shel­ter, Reeves said the county and city have dis­cussed op­tions in­clud­ing va­cant land where a mas­sive tent could be erected, build­ings the city al­ready owns or could buy that can be re­habbed, or even con­tin­u­ing to use Beard Brook or a com­bi­na­tion of those op­tions.

What­ever the long-term so­lu­tion, many agree that for it to work, it should look some­thing like what is be­ing done at Beard Brook now.

“They are polic­ing them­selves and they are do­ing great job,” Coun­cil­woman Kenoyer said. “If we try to break that type of ex­is­tence and put re­stric­tions on them, we will lose them.”

Sla­gle agrees. “It is not about what is ideal for the city any­more; it is about what is ideal for us,” she said. “If they want us out of the parks and off the streets and out of doorsteps, they are go­ing to have to think about what our needs are, what we de­sire.”

ANDY ALFARO aal­faro@mod­bee.com

Joetta Phillips, with daugh­ter Marty, 4, cleans up af­ter mak­ing break­fast at the home­less camp­ground at Beard Brook Park in Modesto. More than 250 peo­ple live at the park, which has be­come known as Beard Brook Vil­lage.

ANDY ALFARO aal­faro@mod­bee.com

Modesto po­lice Sgt. Mike Ham­mond talks with two res­i­dents of the home­less camp­ground at Beard Brook Park.

ANDY ALFARO aal­faro@mod­bee.com

Frank Ay­ers is one of the res­i­dents at the home­less camp­ground at Beard Brook Park in Modesto. The camp­ground, sanc­tioned by the city, is di­vided into four sec­tions.

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