Stockton’s Homeless Crisis: Our city’s most pressing issue

One-on-one interviews with Mayor Kevin Lincoln, Supervisor Tom Patti, and Program Administrator for Homeless Initiatives, Adam Cheshire educate The Lincolnian about Stockton’s growing homeless issue

Underneath the crosstown freeway is quite often a favorite homeless encampment site in downtown Stockton

Photo Courtesy of The Stockton Record

Underneath the crosstown freeway is quite often a favorite homeless encampment site in downtown Stockton

Patrick Wanket, Staff Writer

STOCKTON: California is the most prosperous state in the country with its $3.0 trillion dollar annual revenue. This makes California the fifth ranked economy in the world. For many outsiders, California is a place of dreams. From Southern California’s sunny beaches, to Northern California’s towering mountains, California has been the number one vacation destination in the United States for years. However, great weather and an inclusive culture do come with a price. California ranks first in the nation in median home prices and taxes. Californians are taxed at the rate of 13.3%. Ouch! Yet, those issues seem meager compared to what has become the most prevalent issue in California in the last decade. While California may be home to 12 percent of the country’s population, we also account for 24 percent of the nation’s homeless inhabitants. San Joaquin County, and more specifically the City of Stockton, are no strangers to the issue of homelessness. Every two years the San Joaquin County Continuum of Care does a Homeless Census and Survey, and the results are very disheartening. As of 2019, 2,629 people within the county were homeless. Fifty-nine percent of the individuals recorded were unsheltered, meaning they are walking the streets with no place to go. A large majority of the respondents are suffering from drug, alcohol, and/or psychiatric conditions. These people are truly the most vulnerable our society has, and they need our immediate help.

When a city like Stockton has large amounts of unsheltered homeless individuals, residents will often see them “bound together” to create what are called homeless encampments. Homeless encampments are locations where one or more homeless people live in an unsheltered area. These encampments are often the source of much controversy, as people don’t want to face the distorted reality that poverty and homelessness in Stockton actually exists. Homeless encampments aren’t easy to remove and there are legal and property implications with their removal. I asked Mayor Kevin Lincoln to enlighten my fellow Stocktonians on the laws and technical processes of displacing a homeless encampment. When asked about the current laws regarding homeless encampments, the mayor cited the 2018 9th circuit ruling of Martin v. Boise. This ruling outlaws the displacement of homeless encampments, if the city does not have the available space for them within shelters. Mr. Lincoln did say though that if an encampment is going to be displaced, then the city will reach out to the inhabitants several days before to offer services and a shelter to reside in. After a few days, the city will then clean the site and take those who accept the help into homeless shelters. The mayor stated that, “Some of them (homeless) take advantage of the resources we provide them and seek shelter. Sadly, others choose to pick up and move to another location.” Mr. Lincoln elaborated that sometimes it is also a property issue due to jurisdiction. While in some instances the City has jurisdiction over a homeless encampment; other times the County or the State does. Mr. Lincoln emphasized the importance of coordination between the different levels of government so they can safely remove and provide alternate choices to homeless individuals residing within these encampments.

Mr. Lincoln mentioned the importance of getting the homeless population the supportive services they so desperately need. The mayor then mentioned the urgent need for a navigation center in Stockton to help our homeless people. A navigation center would serve as a location where homeless people could be directed to the right places to serve their needs. If Stockton was able to secure a navigation center, then homeless people could get connected with the resources they need to get back on their feet. When asked what the best short-term solution to homelessness is, the mayor responded by saying staying the course with what we are currently doing. He continued by describing low barrier shelters the city is in the process of cultivating that would not only be able to house homeless people, but also their pets, possessions and partners. Although the city is currently looking for a community partner who has the land to help the city with these projects, Mr. Lincoln made it clear that these shelters are only a short-term solution. He said that the most effective long-term solution to help homeless people is to meet the different housing needs including transitional housing to get them back on their feet, affordable housing for the low income families in our community, and workforce housing. When it comes to the homeless problem, many residents feel helpless. They continually see the struggles of their fellow Stocktonians, but feel as if they are powerless to help. Mayor Lincoln provided options to those who wish to help the homeless. He said the best way the community can help is to volunteer for one of the many outreach programs the city works with including, Saint Mary’s Kitchen, the Gospel Center Rescue Mission, and the United Way of San Joaquin County. The city has limited resources to counter the growing homeless problem, but Mayor Lincoln assures us they are using the resources they do have to their current capacity. Stockton does have several operational shelters, but the city is working on funding to open more shelters.
Lincoln also mentioned the workforce development programs that both the county and the city have to help provide jobs to the homeless. Due to Covid, the city hasn’t had a homeless census since 2019. “We are never going to completely eradicate homelessness”. said the Mayor “but, there are things we can do and are doing to mitigate homelessness to make it less prevalent”. Mayor Lincoln is right, and he is stating a reality that many politicians refuse to address. Homelessness will always be with us no matter how hard we try to eliminate it, and no matter the policies we implement. All we can hope for is that our elected leaders step up and help as many people as possible.

Shelters often have rigid guidelines that occupants must follow in order to stay in them. This often leads many people to choose a life on the streets than to give up things they deem necessary. Lincoln addressed this point by stating, “We need to help those who are willing to accept the help first. Once we can get help for those you want help, we can address those who refuse the help.” He cited the new low barrier shelters as a possible solution since they won’t have all the guidelines current shelters do. The mayor made it clear that, “It is not compassionate to let people wither under bridges.” Lastly, the mayor told us about Stockton’s Clean City Initiative and how in 2021 the city cleaned up over 2.9 million pounds of debris. “A dirty city is a city that feels neglected,” said Lincoln. “The quickest way for all Stocktonians to feel good about their community is to see a city that is clean”.

While Stockton may be the most recognizable city in San Joaquin County, they are hardly the only city struggling with the current crisis. The county as a whole has long struggled with the issue of homelessness. Adam Cheshire, the Program Administrator for Homeless Initiatives, was able to give me his insights into the severity of the crisis. It’s important to know the current capacity of our shelters and how many beds we have available in our shelters to house the unsheltered. Cheshire said that we currently have 1,089 beds available. He made it abundantly clear that the county is working on securing even more beds for those who need it. Cheshire also stressed the fact that he doesn’t work within a department, but is a department all by himself. His role in battling the current homeless crisis is essential though. He works on identifying grants and finding where those grants need to be deployed and which non-profits would best be the best fit. Due to Covid, the San Joaquin Continuum of Care was unable to conduct a homeless census in 2021. They did the count in January of 2022, but Cheshire warns that while the upcoming census may reflect a decrease in the number of homeless people. The census may might not as accurate as it should be due to the lack of volunteers it takes to conduct a proper census. Cheshire also made it clear that there are very few people who don’t want help it’s just that they don’t want the help that is being offered. He explained that if we had the resources and funding to provide them with the rental assistance, then they would actually accept the help offered. Cheshire said that he has grants he can provide to organizations working to help the homeless. He also made it clear that they are hoping to add an additional 788 beds within the next two years. The battle for increased funding is an ongoing challenge for the county.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” said Supervisor Tom Patti describing the growing problem of homelessness in San Joaquin County. Supervisor Patti has been representing District 3 in the San Joaquin Board of supervisors since 2016, and he is no stranger to the current crisis. Patti wanted to make it known that the current problem of homelessness stems from another issue within the community which is drug use. He believes the best solution for people addicted to drugs is getting the right supportive services they need to them. He emphasized the importance of getting those who need help into a central location where they can then get the support they need. He also talked about the vicious cycle that drugs play in homelessness and that the habit can be passed on through generations, if the appropriate services are not provided to our homeless population. Supervisor Patti is an avid critic of the housing first initiative saying that the homeless need supportive services more than housing. Giving them a place to stay won’t help their underlying problems that caused them to be homeless in the first place. Supervisor Patti mentioned the $15 million dollars that the county earmarked to help cities like Stockton start a low barrier shelter program. Patti also believes it’s important for joint public and private partnerships to help the crisis long term.

Homelessness has become more apparent than ever before. As a senior who will be voting in the next election, I will be looking for community leaders on the ballot that have a game plan to battle the issue of homelessness. The homeless are people too, and they deserve compassionate help. Connecting with elected leaders like Mayor Lincoln and Supervisor Patti is so important because we need to know how they are trying to solve this issue. Your income or lack of income should not make you more or less important in society. What matters is providing everyone with the bare necessities to survive in what is becoming an even more cruel world.