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A man is at the homeless camp under Highway 99 by Turner Road in Lodi Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

While the Harmony Homes project at the corner of Lodi Avenue and Washington Street is underway, the Lodi City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a plan to begin engaging the community in developing a homeless access center.

The item was pulled from the agenda’s consent calendar by Vice Mayor Mark Chandler, who said he had received comments from residents under the impression the council was approving a shelter or navigation center without public input.

Chandler asked city staff to describe exactly what the council was being asked to approve, as well as what the item was not.

City manager Steve Schwabauer said the council was not approving a physical project Wednesday night, but a resolution approving a plan to begin discussing the project.

“The concept is to create a place that is safe and secure for our homeless to be,” he said. “Whether you are on the side of the homeless equation where you believe they shouldn’t be in our parks or downtown, or on the side of the equation that you believe our homeless ought to have a safe and secure place to be that is healthy for them, this project is intended to accomplish both goals.”

Schwabauer said that because the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that citing homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors in public places who have no alternative access to shelter is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause, creating a homeless access center was the city’s only option to prohibit camping on public streets and parks.

“You have to be able to show, under the 9th circuit, that you have beds for people to sleep on that are safe and sanitary in order to be able to prohibit people from camping in parks or in public rights of way,” he said. “It also provides resources for people for recovery and counseling to get them out of homelessness.”

Community development director John Della Monica said the city does not plan to create another homeless encampment, but a resource hub with access to mental health services, sobriety services, job readiness and career paths.

“On the flip side of that, it also provides access to those individuals who are not part of the center itself, but members of the community,” he said. “It provides us access back to our city parks, our safe playgrounds for children, and a cleaner downtown with the hopes of a cleaner, generalized city.”

Last November, the council adopted the San Joaquin Community Response to Homelessness, also known as the Strategic Plan, which describes three broad goals to address homelessness, along with three strategies to achieve each goal.

One of those goals is to increase access and reduce barriers to homeless crisis response services, which involves the expansion of a low-barrier shelter.

Another goal is to ensure households experiencing homelessness have access to affordable and sustainable permanent housing, which involves increasing affordable housing, investing in landlord engagement and navigation, and expanding support services.

In order to move forward with the goals identified in the Strategic Plan, staff said it would like hold several community meetings to gather input and feedback regarding an access center in Lodi.

An access center, staff said, is a low-barrier, service-enriched shelter that provides resources to help individuals and families exit the “cycle of homelessness.”

On-site services include intensive case management, hygiene facilities, and round-the-clock staffing including security and janitorial services.

To make sheltering more accessible, partners, pets, and possessions are allowed in a low-barrier setting, staff said, while violence, weapons, open use of substances and disruptive behavior is prohibited within and around the facility.

Former council member JoAnne Mounce said she hopes the city and the council will be transparent with the community as to what the access center will include.

She said she was reminded of a time the council hired a consultant to survey the public’s feeling about Measure L. The consultant’s approval was part of a consent calendar, and the measure’s opposition used that against the city in its ballot argument, claiming the council had not gathered public input.

“The one thing I didn’t hear, in addition to all these services and outreach and life-changing opportunities ... you didn’t say that it will also be approximately 149 beds where homeless people would be living,” she said. “And that’s going to go into someone's backyard. It’s very important that every neighborhood and citizen gets the true picture of what this project is and makes a totally informed decision on how they feel about it. And not just be given this positive side of what it will be, and not the whole picture.”

Kathryn Siddle said the community engagement process will give Lodian the chance to share their thoughts and opinions about the access center, as well as learn what she and the Lodi Committee on Homelessness, as well as the city, have been doing to provide a path of the streets to the unhoused.

“Over the last year there were multiple comments made from the community to the committee suggesting we find out why people are homeless and work to address it,” she said. “As a result, a small group of people have started to do the work of a mobile navigation or access center. That means the homeless are being interviewed and their barriers to housing are being identified, and plans to get them off the street are being created.”

Siddle said that in March, the committee was able to place three homeless Lodians into Project Roomkey, which involves placing the unhoused who are the most at-risk of contracting COVID-19 in an area motel. Prior to March, not one homeless individual had been placed in the program, she said.

In addition, she said the committee visited 21 homeless sites in March, contacting 44 people and making 52 referrals to services and programs designed to help them escaping homelessness. Last month, those numbers jumped to 31 sites visited, 83 contacts made and 67 referrals, she said.

“Now that the homeless know we are out there doing this work, they are looking for us and asking for help,” she said.

Johnny Coughran is a former addict who has been helping the Lodi Police Department’s community liaison officers contact homeless who are addicted to drugs.

The common reason many of Lodi’s homeless tell him they are on the streets, he said, is because of an addiction to meth.

He said the homeless are convinced they need meth so they stay awake at all hours of the day because they are beaten, robbed or raped when they sleep.

“Providing this is an access center for safety. That is something that cannot be understated,” Coughran said. “This access center, this stepping stone, the plans being discussed, is a shelter with incentive living to work yourself into a better environment. We all know the cost of living is increasing. We have to meet them where they’re at, and the problem cannot be avoided. It needs to be addressed or it’s going to increase and just get worse.”

Councilman Shak Khan said he knows many in the community are worried about the prospect of having a shelter or access center in the city, but added that staff and the council should be transparent about every detail of the project.

However, he said the community needed to be made aware that building a center was important to solving the city’s homeless issue.

“As our ex-council member said, you’re putting beds in somebody’s backyard,” Khan said. “We have to know if you’d rather have somebody sleeping in front of your door, or do you want someone sleeping inside where they’re safe and registered and we know who they are, how long they're staying or what kind of program they’re in.”

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