On July 26, Los Banos Mayor Paul Llanez held a town hall meeting in the city’s Community Center to discuss homelessness in Los Banos. Numerous community members attended the meeting to ask questions and offer suggestions on the situation. Llanez prefaced the meeting by sharing his background in dealing with various homeless crises in his 20 years of law enforcement. After starting as a police officer in Dos Palos for a few months, Llanez was hired in Los Banos, where he worked for 20 months. He was promoted into investigations and was assigned to the Narcotics Task Force at Castle Air Force Base for four years. More recently, during the pandemic, Llanez said he worked as the Chief of Public Safety for the Peralta Community College District in the Oakland area for about a year, which included handling numerous calls regarding the homeless. To begin the discussion on homelessness in Los Banos, Llanez first wanted to talk about some of the challenges the city and law enforcement face in addressing homeless issues due to regulations. The first case he cited was Martin v. Boise, a 2009 federal court case which holds that cities cannot criminalize homeless individuals for sleeping on public property if they cannot obtain shelter. “You cannot make homelessness a crime unless you’re going to implement no-camping laws or change your municipal code,” Llanez explained. “And the only way to change your municipal code is by providing more resources than you have [unhoused] people.” “For instance,” Llanez continued, “if we have 100 homeless people living in the City of Los Banos, I have to have 101 beds under a roof to provide for them before I can make encampments against the law.” Llanez added that this court case also prevents the city from relocating encampments that pose problems to other residents.

Another challenge in dealing with homelessness that Llanez described is the Safe Schools and Neighborhoods Act, also known as Proposition 47, a measure passed by California voters in 2014, which made some non-violent property crimes, where the value does not exceed $950, into misdemeanors. It also made some simple drug possession offenses into misdemeanors and provides that past convictions for these charges may be reduced to a misdemeanor by a court. “The police department is bound by these laws, which may mean a citation,” Llanez said. “I’m a firm believer that if we want people to be productive members of society, there have to be consequences.” Mayor Llanez then shared that, statistically, there are currently 78 unhoused individuals in the City of Los Banos, with 35 homeless persons recently sheltered. Llanez added that 50 to 75 unhoused community members are visited by the Housing Division each week, two new staff members are dedicated to homeless resources, and weekly encampment clean ups have been ongoing. Llanez announced that the city had submitted its Project Homekey grant application before the meeting earlier that day. “Project Homekey is a $15 million grant,” Llanez explained, “to purchase a hotel in the city, renovate it and turn it into housing for the unsheltered.” The creation of the shelter will provide 60 units of permanent, supportive housing with case management services through the rehabilitation of the La Plaza Inn, located at 2169 East Pacheco Boulevard. Also earlier in the day, Llanez said, Senator Anna Caballero’s team came down to tour Los Banos and discuss the Project Homekey grant with City Manager Josh Pinheiro. “What I want to tell you,” said Llanez, “is that we are focused, there is a plan in place… and we now have a dedicated team of employees that are there for the people that want the help.” Llanez added that this issue is not something that’s going to go away, but the City of Los Banos’ plan to tackle homelessness begins with Project Homekey. Next, Llanez opened the meeting up to questions. Patricia Ramos-Anderson, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), asked how the city is going to engage the community and provide information to residents on homelessness in Los Banos. She suggested providing a fact sheet or pamphlet that includes information about staff dedicated to homeless resources, who to contact, statistics and how the city is coordinating with the county. “If we don’t have that information, you’re not engaging the residents here that are being impacted,” Ramos-Anderson said. “We’re part of a team.” Mayor Llanez agreed that there should be an increase in communication between the city and its residents and said that more meetings can be held to provide updates to the public. Chuan Menefee, resident of Los Banos, shared that she was fined by Mid Valley Disposal because her green waste container has been repeatedly stolen by homeless persons. “I’m being fined for the stuff that they’re stealing, but there’s no consequence to the criminal,” Menefee expressed. Los Banos City Councilmember Deborah Lewis, present at the town forum, said that she would like to see Mid Valley Disposal make efforts to return these stolen garbage cans, or reimburse the residents, since all garbage cans have a microchip assigned to the owner’s address. “If the City knows where all these cans are,” Lewis said, “we should go round them up and bring them back to the residents who own them because they’re paying for them, and they shouldn’t have to pay again for another trash can.” In response to Lewis’ suggestion, some attendees stated that it is dangerous to go into encampments to retrieve the trash containers. Mayor Llanez said that he is willing to communicate the concern with Mid Valley Disposal. Another resident of Los Banos, Gregg Wilson, stated that he volunteers with the Salvation Army and works regularly with homeless people. He reported that from his experience, he believes that the core issues of the homeless community are drugs and mental health issues. “We need to look at the core problem, why these people are homeless. You can’t help somebody unless you know what the problem is,” Wilson said. Wilson said that there are relatively no resources provided in the county to help with these issues and that drug and mental health problems should be the center focus when addressing homelessness. Jim Romig, a resident of Los Banos and the Homeless Court Navigator for Merced County Rescue Mission, spoke at the forum about the nonprofit organization that provides outreach to those experiencing homelessness. According to Romig, Merced County Rescue Mission houses over 300 people a night. Along with housing, the organization provides counseling for drugs, alcohol and mental health and assists unhoused individuals for job training, planning and accountability. “Merced County Rescue Mission has over 80 employees. Over 85-90 percent have gone through the program,” Romig shared. “Because of that, they’re energetic and passionate about helping people.” “I’m here to ask the City of Los Banos to partner with us, to help this homeless situation come to an end,” Romig stated. Llanez said that they will be consulting with the Merced County Rescue Mission. “Our job is to partner with as many organizations as possible; it isn’t just the City of Los Banos that’s dealing with this.” Llanez reiterated that with applying for the Project Homekey grant, Los Banos is only at the starting point of creating these resources. After the meeting, Llanez commented that he was impressed with the turnout, question and information that was provided by attendees. He said that he will have town halls as often as needed to provide updates to the public.

Malina Duran

Malina Duran’s email is malina.duran1999@gmail.com.