Oct 21, 2017 03:33PM
By Caroline Cabral
From Los Angeles to London, civic leaders are searching for creative ways to deal with their cities’ growing homeless populations.
By Caroline Cabral
In January of 2016, the Walnut Creek Police Department (WCPD) received 41 calls for service relating to the homeless, mostly in response to quality of life issues such as public urination. Flash forward to September 2016, and the number of calls increased to 421.
Today, Walnut Creek’s homeless population is estimated at approximately 400 individuals. Residents, business owners, and visitors report almost daily interactions with members of the homeless community often requiring police response: public intoxication, aggressive panhandling, thefts, disturbances inside businesses, and health hazards associated with encampments.
Sean Connelly is the Lieutenant of Special Operations for the WCPD. He’s been working with the city’s homeless population for the last 15 years and says that homelessness has steadily increased over the last two years. “Every homeless individual has a story, and those stories are impressive,” he says. Connelly has met many who were business people and college graduates, but fell victim to addiction or circumstance. “We get to hear their stories and treat them as people,” he says. “I live and work in Walnut Creek, it’s my community too. The homeless are an underserved population. Just because you are homeless, it does not mean you are a criminal. But I’m against those who want to commit crimes.”
The department is taking action to combat the problem. They break up and clean up encampments in city ravines and on the trails in Civic Park. “We look at what’s worked for other cities, and see what can work for Walnut Creek,” says Connelly. He believes one of the reasons behind Walnut Creek’s increased homeless population is the lack of affordable housing in the area, as well as the fact that day services which offered support to displaced persons have closed in nearby cities.
“Everybody has a truth” says Donna Columbo, Executive Director of Trinity Center, a Walnut Creek day care facility providing displaced persons with a place to go for showers, food, laundry, counseling and health care services along with assistance on housing and employment. “The Center is a safe place off the street. We give care and hope to people through access to services and resources.”
Columbo says the people who use Trinity Center vary: “59 percent are men; 41 percent are women; 20 percent live in cars; 48 percent live outside; 10 percent stay in shelters; two percent stay with family/friends.” She says the Trinity Center serves more than just the homeless population; they serve anyone in need of their services—even if they have a home. Columbo also leads Walnut Creek’s Homeless Task Force: a group of residents, business owners, and the WCPD who meet monthly at the Trinity Center to discuss issues surrounding homelessness and potential solutions.
Walnut Creek’s warm weather, parks and trails, programs to help the homeless, as well its affluent community make the city an ideal place to settle. Jay Hoyer, President of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce, has witnessed the acute impact on those affected by homelessness. “There’s a certain amount of vandalism associated with it and a certain amount of discontent. This is a fragile issue, though. We’re certainly compassionate. You want to be compassionate to the people who legitimately need help,” says Hoyer. “There’s a delicate balance between compassion and pragmatism.”
One business owner we spoke to, Mike Baker, who owns Galleria Shades & Shutters with his wife Debbie, says they have seen a 15 percent drop in walk-in business. “People don’t feel safe,” Baker says. “My wife often works in the store alone and has had homeless people come in and expose themselves or start yelling. It’s spiraled out of control in the last year or two in my opinion,” he says.
Safeway employees share similar stories. Theft at the downtown store by homeless individuals has skyrocketed with booze, batteries, and prepared food among the favorite targets. “Basically the merchandise moved after 2am, is not purchased, and it’s reflected in our numbers,” says one manager who asked to remain unnamed. He also points to the “bring your own bag law” in Walnut Creek which has made it much easier to commit crimes. “They come in one door, fill their bag, and exit at the opposite end of the store. We do not have the staff to guard against this daily threat, happening as often as ten times per day.”
“We need to be empathetic within reason,” says Kathy Hemmenway, Executive Director of Walnut Creek Downtown, “It is a concern for many businesses. They’re affected by the homeless population on a daily basis. It’s a complicated issue, and it gets more complicated as we see more homeless in the downtown and the city. Hemmenway, who participates on the task force says, “There’s no big answer that’s going to solve this. There needs to be education and outreach to the public, and there is room for more involvement from the business community and the residents.”
Walnut Creek’s City Council identified developing a realistic response to homelessness as a top priority for 2017-2018, recently allocating $200,000 for a new Homelessness Action Plan—All of Us Taking Care of All of Us. Actions include: studying homelessness from an economic, public safety, behavioral health, and social justice perspective to better understand the scope of the problem; working with the community; engaging regional agencies and cities to build partnerships. “Homelessness is not about the person sleeping under the bush in the park,” says Columbo. “We have seniors, young mothers, and others who from no fault of their own are late on their rent and losing their housing…these are also the people we help.” For more information go to walnut-creek.org or trinitycenterwc.org.