Rough sleepers in for tough time in Martinez


Jesse Sutterley

Chris Harless a homeless man from Martinez sits smoking a cigarette while discussing the new ordinances in Martinez on Feb. 8, saying that the cops stop him at least twice a day.

Jesse Sutterley, Co-editor-in-chief

New Martinez laws have made it an infraction to sleep in a car from 11 p.m. – 8.30 a.m., camp on public property, or use buildings or parks as restrooms.

Prior to the changes Martinez Police Chief, Majit Sappal, noted that the laws for these offense were unclear and made interactions with officers less than ideal.

“We are not trying to sweep people up. Ticketing people or helping them get to shelters rather than taking them to jail may be a worth while venture,” said Sappal. He went on to say that it is the job of officers to help individuals, not just haul them away.

Arrests would only be made on individuals that refuse to get help or refuse to be moved to shelters.

“This isn’t about criminalizing homelessness. Most of what they [homeless] are doing is not criminal, but it makes people feel unsafe. It’s about helping people and building a relationship with officers,” said Sappal.

Since the new ordinances have been passed, Sappal has had more officers patrolling the downtown area with greater levels of success.

Although trying to help homeless people by moving them to shelters is commendable, there are only two shelters for the 19 cities in the surrounding area. With over 200 homeless people in Martinez two shelters will not be enough. But there is no current push by the county for an additional homeless shelter in Martinez.

“This is a county wide need,” said Councilor Anamarie Avila Farias “Cities don’t have the funding for new facilities, and they should not be refusing the funding.” Avila Farias had just returned from talking with the California State Legislator about gaining funding for Contra Costa County. “We can’t compete with cities like San Francisco, so the criteria for funding needs to be changed,” said Avila Faris.

Avila Farias also noted that these new ordinances will not impact the current shelters, because the process is not stream lined. “People don’t enter homeless shelters, get help, join programs and find work that quickly, it isn’t that black and white,” said Avila Farias. She made it clear that these ordinances are a response to the lack of funding from the state for mental health care and basic facilities to combat homelessness.

“Our system is broken, on the state and national level and we need to start somewhere,”said Avila Farias, “There was resistance from the community 20 years ago when we tried to open a shelter,” Avila Farias said, fearing the same resistance may still exist. “If we want to fix the problem we can’t resist programs that will help.”

Although these new ordinances were put into effect to help the homeless, not all homeless people feel that they are getting the help that they need.

Response from the Martinez homeless, however, has not been as positive.

“Man, the cops mess with me at least twice a day and I’m not doing anything, just trying to pass the time,” said Chris Harless, a Martinez homeless man.

“I can’t relax, I can’t focus,” said Stacey Decosta, a homeless woman from Martinez. “You can’t look for a job when you are focusing on finding a place to rest your head. And I have to find a new place all the time because of these camping laws.”

Decosta pointed out that, although these laws are helping some people, the police don’t know what to do with the people that don’t want help.

“Some of these old guys out here have been homeless for years and have just accepted it,” Decosta said. “They don’t want help, they don’t want to go to a shelter, they just want to be left alone. It’s hard to get up once you have been down and out for so long.”