On Tuesday, in a split decision that mirrored a divide among community members at the meeting, the City Council appointed two members to form a subcommittee to draft a strategic plan to deal with the issues surrounding homelessness in Tracy.
The elected body voted 3-1, with Mayor Robert Rickman abstaining, to appoint council members Dan Arriola and Rhodesia Ransom. Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young made the motion and Ransom and Arriola voted in support. Councilwoman Veronica Vargas voted against the motion.
“I think everyone in the room would agree, at the end of the day we have to do something,” Arriola said during the discussion before the vote. “We need to look at resource-receptive individuals — people who are willing to get the resources they need — and streamline that. Get rid of the bureaucracy, get rid of the red tape, and figure out how to get them the help they need right then and there and get them off the streets and get them to solve their particular needs. Then you have resource-averse individuals. That’s going to be a more complicated issue. With that, we’re going to need to enhance the trust because they do not trust institutions.”
Rickman said the community should be worried about what will happen if police do not deal with a homeless population that commits crimes.
“If you look back two years ago and talking about enforcement, vagrancy for example, you go back to Chief Hampton and you had zero tolerance on loitering and drug use and so on. Then we became lax,” he warned. “We pulled proactive enforcement and we changed it with different non-enforcement. What happened, what you saw throughout the city of Tracy — and this just isn’t the homeless population — you saw our crime rate go up.”
Ransom was concerned about scaring people away from dealing with the problems.
“That’s one of the things that’s kind of held us back as a city — the fearmongering. Those are the things that we cannot allow to divide us,” she said. “We all want to be safe. We all want our parks back. We all want to be sure that we’re dealing with the criminal elements of homelessness. Most of us also want to deal with the fact that there’s people living in our community unsheltered.”
Rickman insisted that there be a balance between help and enforcement.
“You stop enforcement, you reduce enforcement, you assign these officers over here to go stand in a park with an ice cream cone without going out in the field and patrolling the streets, crime will go up,” he said.
During the public comment period, local businesswoman Erica Sandoval said she knew firsthand the danger of the homeless in Tracy.
“I have been robbed by homeless. I have been attacked by homeless. It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for them — I’m not a heartless, cold person,” she said, calling homelessness a personal problem. “Nobody gives me anything for free. I have to pay my bills. I have to pay my lease. I have to pay my car insurance. Everything comes out of my pocket. Nobody gives me anything. Why do I have to pay for somebody else who doesn’t want to do anything for themselves? Why?!”
A man who called himself Angel addressed the council members about his own experience of homelessness, asking them to do something.
“Anybody can be homeless. I was once a professional baseball player. I owned a trucking company making $2.5 million a year. I’m homeless and none of you guys want to do anything about it because you have people that run this city that are anti-homeless,” he said. “I’m not a bad person. You know what I do every day? I walk around the city picking up trash. I recycle enough money to feed myself and one other person. I’m not a bad person, but I’m homeless and everybody looks down at me. Instead of looking down at me, why don’t you look up at the stuff I do?”
Stephen Thompson, chief operations officer for Tracy Community Connections Center, urged the council to contribute to an existing task force made up of local churches and nonprofit agencies that is trying to confront homelessness.
“We don’t have what is needed to help the community — the homeless community,” he said. “You’re talking about a committee put together by the council. We’ve been a part of Tracy Homeless Task Force for, it’s going on two years now. I think that it would serve everybody well that we come together and use the wealth of information that we’ve already gotten.”
The mayor said he favored having the city staff hire a consultant to find a way to recognize “the homeless that are in need versus the criminally vagrant” and not leave it to the Tracy Community Homelessness Task Force, which Ransom helped start in March 2017 and has worked with in an unofficial capacity.
“Do I support this new task force: No,” Rickman said. “First of all, I don’t know anything about this task force. I know the police department has recently asked me, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this task force? You know anything about it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ I don’t even know what members are in. They’ve never reached out to me.”
Resident Pete Mitracos said the City Council should leave it to the community for now and not get politically involved in an “emotional, complicated issue.”
“I think we should have a task force of the citizens of Tracy. The political responsibility comes after the citizens are educated and they come to their conclusions,” he said. “There’s mental health issues. There’s addiction issues. There’s affordability issues. Maybe there’s multiple task forces. But certainly we should have one on affordable housing.”
Resident Carlos Ocampo appealed to the City Council not to turn a blind eye to psychological issues and addiction in the homeless community.
“What has worked has been looking, investing and providing mental health resources and resources to help combat substance abuse,” he said. “One thing that I would hope to emphasize with this new council that will be formed is that we don’t criminalize addiction. And we don’t criminalize mental health. … There’s these people who are on the street and we don’t like to see them and that’s just wrong to see. I hope we don’t criminalize those people.”
Young explained her motion to form a council subcommittee by saying she wanted to make sure the city government would be part of the solutions being considered.
“Various people have come together, but what’s missing at the table right now is the city of Tracy,” she said, referring to the Tracy Community Homelessness Task Force. “We don’t know for Tracy what’s right. We have to find something that works for Tracy. And I think that it is important that we’re very strategic in what we’re coming up with.”
At the end of more than two hours, Arriola and Ransom were appointed to a new City Council subcommittee to deal with homelessness. Rickman said he abstained because he didn’t have enough information about the subcommittee’s goals.