By Vicky Boyd 

THERE’S NO DENYING that San Joaquin County has a growing issue with homeless who need housing, food, personal hygiene, medical and mental health services, and job counseling, say San Joaquin Farm Bureau leaders. Where they have a concern is with an idea being bandied about to convert the now-closed Holt Union Elementary School in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into a homeless service center and shelter for 1,000-1,500 people.

“The logistics and feasibility of this happening in an ag zone, not only at the Holt School but also in rural farmland, just doesn’t make sense,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker, who farms row crops in the Delta. “A more viable solution would be west of I-5 and east of Highway 99 in a location in a city or town.”

Paul Sanguinetti, who farms east of Stockton, agreed and said a homeless centre needs to be closer to services that will help them.

“I think we agree we need to do something,but let’s be realistic about what we’re doing,” said Sanguinetti, California Farm Bureau District 12 director. “They need services, and there are no services out there. They need to be somewhere they can get medical and mental health treatment. You need to have buses. You need to have police protection. You need to have ambulances. They don’t have any of that out there.”

Strecker and Sanguinetti were among the more than 90 people who filled the Roberts Union Farm Center recently to meet with San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti about the Holt School proposal as well as to seek potential alternative sites for a homeless service center. At times, tempers on both sides flared as Delta residents vented their frustrations about being viewed as a dumping ground.

“If you want to brainstorm other locations, I’m sure we can do that,” said Rogene Reynolds, a Roberts Island resident. “But you have to understand our concerns, and they’re the very same concerns that happened when Lathrop wanted to bring their sewage out here. It’s basically an urban problem being brought out to a rural area.”

Patti said he envisions a facility that will offer a one-stop approach to homeless care and services similar to that of Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas.

Situated on a 22-acre campus, Haven for Hope involves 140 different organizations and offers about 300 different services, according to its website. It was fully operational beginning in 2010 and serves about 1,700 people daily.

Unlike efforts being promoted by the San Joaquin Continuum of Care board that focus on housing the homeless first, Patti said his “Tru Care Plan” would be designed to provide a centralized service center coupled with temporary housing. Court of Appeals ruling.

He said he’d like to have a plan solidified within the next 90 days to present to the continuum board. Until cities can offer alternative sleeping arrangements, they cannot enforce no-camping bans, Patti said, citing a 9th Circuit

Holt Union Elementary School

The vacant Holt Union Elementary School was brought to Patti’s attention in July as a possible homeless site by current owners RDS Properties, which would lease it to the county, he said. The 217,000-square-foot school sits on 5 acres of land at the corner of West McDonald and South Holt roads. It has been described as a turnkey operation that has been fully maintained with a full kitchen and a gymnasium.

In addition to refurbishing classrooms and bathrooms, Patti said a large, industrial tent could be erected over the courtyardarea to accommodate additional people.

Audience members were quick to point out the myriad reasons why the old Holt Union Elementary was not suitable for a homeless center. The facility is located 7 miles west of Stockton in the Delta, making it remote and disconnected from social services.

The groundwater well serving the school is contaminated with arsenic, resulting in non-potable water. The small sewer system couldn’t handle 1,000 to 1,500 people.

The school is along narrow, country roads with no shoulders for pedestrians or cyclists. In the winter, the region is frequently shrouded in fog, creating poor visibility.

There is no mass transportation, such as city or county buses, serving the school, and sheriff’s deputies and fire protection are already stretched thin in the rural Delta.

A few audience members also expressed concern that a homeless shelter would attract others, who would camp illegally in nearby orchards and complicate typical farming practices.

Among alternatives sites suggested by the audience were Rough and Ready Island, the Port of Stockton military housing, SharpeArmy Depot, the former Northern California Women’s Facility prison on Arch Road, San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, empty warehouses near the Stockton airport and migrant labor housing adjacent to the county jail in French Camp.

All of these sites are significantly closer to much-needed social services for homeless than the Holt School site, audience members pointed out.

Patti finally admitted that on a suitability scale of 1-10 –with 10 being top –Holt School ranked a zero, and the Continuum of Care board subsequently agreed at its August meeting.


Lack of transparency

The Holt School proposal came to light in early August after a video of Patti, service providers and homeless advocates touring the facility went public on YouTube and local TV stations. And therein lies the rub for several audience members who chastised Patti for not first approaching local residents within his district, which includes the Delta, before going public with the plan.

Many Delta residents said the video and two local newspaper articles published in August were the first they had heard of the proposal.

Sanguinetti criticized Patti for springing the proposal on local residents. Instead, he said the supervisor should have followed the same public review process for a homeless center as any other similar development would have to undergo.

“All I’m saying is you come out here with the attitude that we’re wrong and you’re right,” Sanguinetti said. “Now you change your tune. Now you want us to suggest where we should put the homeless shelter. There should be other meetings. The county should be handling this, and you need to go through the process.”