Dale Jin Yoo says he follows his Christian faith, trying to love his neighbors as he loves himself.
Those neighbors include the homeless people who sleep at night outside his clothing store in the Modesto shopping center at Carver Road and Roseburg Avenue. For a half dozen years, he says, he’s given them food, sleeping bags and rides to shelters. On Christmas Eve he’s handed out bags of McDonald’s and Bible verses.
But these days, Yoo’s love is being tested.
Some of the homeless have caused major problems monthly for his family’s store, Pacific Clothing, he says. They have defecated next to the trash receptacle in the nearby breezeway. They have harassed his customers, stolen merchandise and broken store windows.
“It just broke me yesterday,” Yoo said Wednesday the day after discovering that someone had defecated again. “I pray for you, got you sleeping bags, feed you, you still broke my windows, you (defecated) all over the place.”
Yoo said he prayed about what to do as he drove to work Wednesday.
“You have to turn it over to the Lord,” he said as he stood outside the store and talked about his experiences with homeless people.
Councilman Nick Bavaro was listening.
Bavaro goes out regularly to talk with homeless people who decline to go to shelters. He wants to understand their reasoning. He was talking with a homeless man behind Pacific Clothing when Yoo arrived.
Bavaro, 70, was elected to the City Council in November, but he started talking with homeless people in 2020. He said he was tired of them urinating on the front door of his employee benefits business and shooting up drugs on the sidewalk in front of his business when it was in downtown.
Bavaro said he has learned that some homeless people may never go to a shelter because it reminds them of when they were in prison, they don’t feel safe among large numbers of people or they don’t want to follow the rules.
Bavaro said he wants Modesto to open safe camping sites for people who won’t to go to a shelter.
The camping sites would have security, toilets, showers and drinking water and would accommodate 25 to 30 people. Outreach workers would work with homeless people to help them take the next steps in their lives. That could include finding employment, going to a shelter or entering a treatment program.
Modesto could start with a small pilot program, but Bavaro said there is a need for as many as 15 sites throughout the city.
He said the camps would be in locations that work for homeless people while protecting neighborhoods and businesses. Bavaro said the camps do not negate the need to provide homeless people with other services, including permanent housing.
He’d also like the city to have several day centers to give homeless people an alternative to hanging out in parks and shopping centers.
He said the day centers would need to offer services that attract homeless people, such as bathrooms and cell phone charging stations. Bavaro said homeless people who sleep in shelters but have to leave during the day would use the day centers.
Bavaro said it is not illegal to be homeless and homeless people have the same rights as anyone else to be in parks and other public spaces when they are open. But he said parks, shopping centers and the alleys behind businesses were never intended to be used as homes.
Unlike the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter — the tent city that housed about 400 people for about a year starting in early 2019 — smaller camps would be manageable, Bavaro said. Local officials opened MOES in response to a federal court ruling that said it is not a crime to sleep in parks and other public property when alternative shelter is not available.
MOES gave Stanislaus County enough time to open a roughly 180-bed shelter in The Salvation Army’s Berberian Center. There are nearly 760 shelter beds provided by local government and nonprofits in Modesto, according to the city. Annual countywide homeless counts in recent years have tallied roughly 1,900 to 2,900 homeless people, with the vast majority of them in Modesto.
Bavaro said despite California spending billions of dollars in recent years to reduce homelessness, the crisis has gotten worse. He said it is not realistic to think Modesto can solve homelessness, but he said the city can do a better job managing it.
The homeless people who avoid shelters “need a place to go,” Bavaro said. “The problem is they have no place to go. That is why we see them on the street.”
Bavaro countered the argument that residents or businesses will oppose the camp sites because it will bring homelessness near them by saying homeless people already are among them as they sleep in city parks and on the grounds of businesses. He said his proposal provides a safe place for homeless people, restores parks to their intended purposes and helps businesses.
“They do need that,” Yoo said about safe camping sites. “That is definitely the first step if they don’t want to move into the shelter.
Shelters remind him of prison
Bavaro approaches the homeless on streets, in parks and other places they gather to learn more about their lives. In the last year, Bavaro also has gone out about a half dozen times with homeless advocates Frank Ploof and Eric Caine. Bavaro said many of the homeless he speaks with are broken, traumatized people.
Ploof, 75, is a retired computer scientist, serves on the Stanislaus Regional Housing Authority board and has helped and advocated for homeless people for many years. Caine, 76, is a retired Merced College English instructor and founded The Valley Citizen, a local news website, about a decade ago. He writes extensively about homelessness on his website.
The three men visited several locations Wednesday where homeless people gather. At Graceada Park, which is surrounded by homes, Bavaro spoke with Kevin Walker.
“I’ve been to prison and it reminds me of prison,” the 55-year-old Walker said, giving his reason for not sleeping at a shelter. He said his 15-month-old pit bull, Ally, would have to sleep in a crate at the shelter. “My dog sleeps right next to me every night, all night, so it’s like she wouldn’t have no part of that,” Walker said.
He said the pastor of a nearby church has let him sleep in the back of the church grounds for a couple of years but said he likes Bavaro’s idea of secure camping sites.
“Parks are for families,” Walker said. “I understand that, and I understand no one likes looking out their windows and seeing all the (expletive) that goes on over here sometimes. ... But they also got to understand that some of us have no place to go. ... That’s where the problem lies.”
Bavaro later spoke with a 37-year-old man lying on cardboard on the paved walkway behind Yoo’s store. The man would identify himself only by his first name, Stefan.
Stefan said he’s been sleeping at the Carver Road shopping center for about two months. He said he became homeless seven years ago after being asked to leave where he had been living.
Stefan said an outreach worker helped him about three years ago with applying for Social Security disability benefits for his mental health disability. But he said he needs to see a doctor as part of the application. When asked why he has not done that, Stefan said: “It’s just me forgetting to do it.”
‘Not really a people person’
He disdains homeless shelters.
“I’m not really a people person, and the rules that they have are kind of stupid,” Stefan said. “I don’t trust leaving my stuff around other people. They can take it.”
Pacific Clothing is in the northwest corner of the shopping center, tucked away from many of the other stores. It also is near a covered breezeway. Yoo said that is why homeless people gather there. His family has had its store in the center since 1995. Yoo has worked there the entire time.
He was praying about six years about what to do about the homeless people when he realized they, too, were his neighbors. As a Christian, he was compelled to love them as he loves himself. At times that can be frustrating and difficult to do, he said.
“We’re pretty OK with whatever they do,” said Gong Lau, the shopping center’s property manager, when asked about Yoo’s efforts to help. “A lot of the tenants here feel for the homeless. They do what they can. There is another tenant over there (near Pacific Clothing) who gives them blankets and other aids.”
Lau has worked at the shopping center since 1996, first as the Sam’s Food City manager, then as the Valley Public Storage manager since 2013 when the grocery closed. He said 20 years ago he might see a couple of homeless people in the center during the day. Now it is more like 10.
“It’s not a positive,” he said. “But we’re not unique. That’s the feedback I get when I call law enforcement (about homeless people in the shopping center.) They say you are not the only ones. It’s everywhere.”
Center hires homeless man
Lau said he wishes there were no homeless people in his center, but he knows that is unrealistic. He tolerates those who sleep overnight and don’t leave a mess when they leave. “We’re not OK with them being here,” he said, “but we understand it’s a fact of life, and we have to muddle through.”
Lau said he is not OK with those who camp out during the day, loiter, panhandle or act aggressively toward customers. But he said the homeless people know what is expected of them for the most part and he seldom has to ask someone to leave or call the police.
He said the homeless are people, too, and some are the shopping center’s customers, including several who rent storage at Valley Public Storage to keep their belongings. Lau said several years ago he hired one of the men who had been sleeping at the center as its maintenance person.
“He’s still with us,” Lau said. “He’s pretty good.”
Lau said Bavaro’s safe camping proposal “sounds like a good idea.” But he has several questions, including whether the camp sites can be managed so they don’t become overrun with trash and debris. He said the shopping center still would attract homeless people because they can buy food at the Dollar General store, fountain drinks at the liquor store and cigarettes at the smoke shop.
Lau said he worries about the homeless people who would refuse to use the safe camping sites. He said it takes only a couple of homeless people to cause a lot of problems.
Bavaro said he expects homeless people would use the safe camping sites because they would have access to such basics as toilets and avoid encounters with park rangers and police officers. He said the city would hire a nonprofit that works with the homeless to run the camps.
Bavaro said soon after he was elected he would ask Mayor Sue Zwahlen at a City Council meeting to form a three-member ad-hoc committee to study his proposal and appoint him committee chairman.
Bavaro said he got ahead of himself when he said that and realized he had more work to do on his proposal. He said he continues to talk with the mayor and City Manager Joe Lopez and hopes that within a couple of months the City Council will have a public discussion about safe camping.