The forced removal of homeless from an encampment sparked protests and stoked fears of encampments popping up in other parts of the city.
Los Banos police removed between 15 and 20 homeless people from G Street and Mercey Springs Road at 8 a.m. Monday. The area is slated to house the Robert M. Falasco Justice Center, with construction to begin next year.
Shutting down the encampment led to a short protest outside of City Hall. About 15 people from the Community Advocacy Coalition and the Light of Love Ministry marched and held picket signs questioning why the city does not have more resources for the homeless.
“We need to be responsible and provide a shelter for the homeless. We can push them off that property and they’ll just go somewhere else,” said Ray Martinez, protest organizer. “The city needs to be responsible for the people in this city and quit trying to shove them off into some other district.”
Cmdr. Jason Hedden said the encampment had become a health hazard.
“There’s human feces and garbage out here, it’s a very unhealthy situation,” Hedden said.
There are 88 homeless in Los Banos, according to a Continuum of Care count in January. More than one-third have lived at the courthouse site for months following demolition of a melon shed many of the homeless used for shelter on G Street near Seventh Street.
Developer Sam Watson and Jose and Anna Montes, who own the courthouse site, had posted “no trespassing” signs and fenced off the area but did not deter the homeless.
Hedden said the property owners signed a “citizens arrest” complaint, allowing police to remove the homeless for trespassing.
If the homeless return, Hedden said, “At some point, I anticipate we will be making arrests.”
The homeless were given about a month’s notice to vacate the encampment, which has become commonly known as “The Jungle.”
Edward Barron said he and other homeless will likely take up residence on public property such as parks and former railroad sites throughout town.
“They tell me I can only be arrested if I’m found on private property. If we’re on city property, parks, behind Kmart where the train tracks used to run, I can go set up there and they can’t harass me,” Barron said.
Barron said the city offered to connect the homeless with service agencies in Merced, but he does not believe anyone accepted the offer. City Manager Steve Carrigan said six people accepted assistance.
“About a month and a half ago we brought in (Merced County) Mental Health and the Community Action Agency,” Carrigan said. “There were 35 people out there. Six out of 35, those numbers aren’t spectacular, (but) they (county officials) told me I’d get three.
“I talked to 15 or 20 of them. I don’t think I met one person who was from Los Banos. We’re hoping some of them went home.”
Carrigan said police are patrolling the city in case other encampments pop up. He said the Fire Department is also assisting, because random cooking fires are frequent in areas where homeless congregate.
“I think we have to do everything humanly possible to help these people, but we are not going to let encampments pop up all over the city,” Carrigan said.
Carrigan said Los Banos plans to apply for $1.5 million from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department so housing for eight to 10 homeless people can be purchased. Carrigan said he wants to set up something similar to Pacheco Place, a two-story, eight-unit affordable housing project in Los Banos that serves the homeless diagnosed with mental health issues. Carrigan said he wants the Merced County Community Action Agency to run the facility and his staff will keep the federal government informed on how the money is being spent.
In the past, Carrigan has said he wants to bring in more social services and permanent housing for the homeless. He said the city will continue to tackle the homeless issue.
“We’re not finished here,” Carrigan said.