Stockton’s Representatives Split Between Talk and Action on Homelessness
By Patrick Eley
Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua
Carlos Villapudua is a lifelong advocate for Stockton, California. Raised in the Central Valley hub, he spent two decades working for San Joaquin County, including two terms on the Board of Supervisors from 2009-2017. After his second term, the Assemblyman served as the San Joaquin County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO, advocating for minority-owned small businesses locally and in Sacramento. Villapudua also served as the Governmental Relations Manager for Western Pacific Truck School. There he advocated on both a state and local level for increased vocational education funding and well-paying jobs with benefits that could support households.
A lifelong Democrat, Carlos was sworn in as Assemblyman on December 7, 2020 with a bipartisan mission at the top of every voter poll in the Central Valley to tackle the homelessness epidemic. He says, “As a freshman legislator on the floor, I take homelessness very seriously. I got elected to take charge of this problem. From day one [this year], I heard people saying they drive through Stockon, and it’s depressing–the litter and the homelessness along the offramps.”
It’s a first impression that’s unfortunately become fairly accurate about the whole county, though nowhere is worse than in Stockton. Since being elected to the position, Carlos worked closely with [former] Tracy Mayor and current County Supervisor Robert Rickman to study the issue. Rickman is a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol. The CHP has its boots on the ground when it comes to handling the problems with the homeless, and Tracy is part of the Assemblyman’s 13th district along with Thornton and Mountain House.
Rickman’s insight confirmed what Carlos saw in his neighborhood. Roadside encampments are more than just cosmetic blemishes. The current homeless population is responsible for fatalities of both tax-paying citizens and vagrants. Incidents increased when the homeless had the opportunity to become entrenched in not just Stockton but communities around California due to elected officials delaying action and upholding complicated laws related to encampments. Crime and violence have ballooned in even the safest neighborhoods.
“It’s not just about moving people; it’s about public safety. We are looking at an issue of keeping both the homeless and residents out of harm’s way,” Vallapudua explains. Stockton’s local leadership has had funding from the state and federal government to address the issue for a while now. The funding has continued to be tied up in committee meetings and split votes. As a resident of Stockton raising a family, Carlos understands this issue isn’t one that can keep being put off in hopes of political party glory. In many ways, that’s why he was elected.
Back in February, he reached out to Caltrans. The department operates independently of the local government and receives its own budget to address the homelessness and litter along California highways and freeways.
“I sat down with Caltrans and made sure this would be a priority,” says Villapudua. “They were taking direction from former [Stockton] electives. When I met with the staff, we said we need to make this a priority, and they were ready to move. Caltrans now gives a three-day notice to the homeless encampments along the interchanges. We let them know we will be here in three days to clean up. Then the Caltrans crew comes. We clean. We then offer a shelter. Some take advantage. Some do not.”
Carlos couldn’t officially get things moving until March of this year, so in a matter of 3 short months, the progress is significant–5 interchanges have been addressed. Before he was elected, when you would pass the Benjamin Holt exit on I-5 near my home, you would see piles of debris (including syringes), clothing, shopping carts, and make-shift tents. Since the Assemblyman came into office, the area is clean, and the family-owned shops and restaurants are in plain view. Caltrans’s efforts are a great start and a symbolic one in changing the rest of the state’s impression of the 209.
Villapudua explains the philosophy employed by Caltrans, “This is going to be like graffiti. Each time it goes up, we keep re-painting and accept that it’s part of the process. This is not a one-day clean-up but a consistent clean-up. When we see it, we are going to move it. We are going to clean it up. This is what the constituency wanted, so we are going to make sure we get things done where we can.”
It’s been a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, that fresh air doesn’t exist inside the middle class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods off the exit beyond the Caltrans jurisdiction. That’s supposed to be the city’s responsibility, but politics remains in the way.
The Stockton City Council unanimously approved a resolution to accept and appropriate nearly $20 million in both state and federal funding back in January. While land, buildings, and money are available to the city for housing and homeless assistance, they are frozen by a bickering Board of Supervisors.
Carlos Villapudua points out that this is a pattern in Stockton. The money is available, but the nonprofits and participating businesses can’t agree on who gets control of the funding, only to delay until the project and money fall through. He’s already met with Mayor Kevin Lincoln, II, along with City Manager Harry Black. They are prepared to move forward. The same goes for county supervisors Tom Patti and Robert Rickman (other surrounding municipalities want to see the problems addressed too).
In the meantime, the homeless keep expanding into every part of the Central Valley. They border school zones, and vagrants under the influence of cocktails that include methamphetamine and fentanyl are commonly getting caught on campuses and in the yards of homes with young children. Tents can be seen on the other sides of fences in even the nicest neighborhoods, and for the most part, the city is not doing anything.
Before removing the homeless from where they set up camp, law states that authorities must have shelter or housing available. In most cases right now, there is nowhere for them to go, so police must let people remain wherever they have set up shop, only acting when they commit an actual crime. At that point, it’s usually too late to avoid a tragedy.
All of the resources are in Stockton to address this state-wide emergency; only egos are in the way. The money is there. We have warehouse space available to retrofit housing with integrated services the homeless need.
The warehouse retrofit approach has already been proven in San Diego. Supervisor Tom Patti has gone all around the country to learn about the best methods for helping the homeless while simultaneously cleaning up the communities in which they reside. The county knows what works.
Polling is clear the constituents want action. Assemblyman Villapudua makes sure to get the municipality’s representatives involved in meetings addressing homelessness, but no matter how much collaboration the state offers, the city and county must approve their own measures. Instead, incumbent politicians have sat on their hands.
Meanwhile Villapudua has stayed busy working to ensure a successful future for Stockton. He sees the fix to the homelessness issue as a holistic situation related to the local economy. It’s not just about cleaning up and moving the homeless out of sight.
The shutdowns permanently eliminated many of the careers Stocktonians had that could support their families. Finding a job and finding employment that supplies a liveable wage are two very different things. With inflation soaring, the latter is a more difficult challenge.
Central Valley residents often commute 1-2 hours each way to the Bay Area and some were already at their limit regarding mental health and family structure before COVID. The grind can cause severe burnout and often makes it impossible for parents to be involved in their children’s lives during the workweek. Carlos has seen it within his own family, and the Assemblyman is working hard on a solution that improves commuting times, brings Bay Area business expansion, and creates living-wage jobs for Stockton’s residents.
He’s ironing out the details of building rail to connect Stockton to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The new lines will cut the commute in half for many. The buildout and train stations will provide infrastructure jobs and permanent employment. All in all, Carlos says the project will create thousands of jobs over the next couple of years.
Making Stockton more accessible is the missing link to bringing commerce and innovation to town. If Stockton also gets ahead of the game in addressing the homelessness epidemic, it will trump parts of San Francisco in terms of safety and cleanliness. This project is not a high-speed rail but rather a conventional connection to the BART–utilized successfully in surrounding cities to alleviate the congestion that deters big companies from building.
The Right Ingredients
Stockton is in a perfect place geographically, agriculturally, and industrially to evolve into a future-proof economy with a few key initiatives. The Central Valley is part of the nation’s agricultural backbone. While most industries have come and gone over the last century, food will always be a necessity.
The Port of Stockton provides the eastern-most ocean access in all of California without width restrictions, meaning full-size vessels can travel to and from the Pacific Ocean with massive amounts of cargot. The port has 400 acres approved for needed upgrades and buildout. The Delta also provides water resources exceedingly rare to west coast farming.
Stockton’s central proximity to San Francisco makes it an ideal pivot point for third-party logistics and supply chain facilities; however, the city lacks infrastructure for modern transportation and distribution. Developing these upgrades can go a long way towards creating the jobs the city needs. Right now, the local workforce is frequently getting priced out of its own housing market because salaries aren’t competitive with surrounding municipalities that have superior transit and distribution hubs. The county just needs a little modernization. It has the resources that no amount of construction can create in other parts of California.
Money in the Bank
The money for both addressing homelessness and the transit project is there. It’s important to note that there is NO threat of new taxes to finance the efforts. More than $20 million is currently set aside in state and federal funding. This number could grow to $100 million in grants if city officials could get the show on the road.
In a June San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting, local nonprofits testified they weren’t ready to pass the homeless legislation. This wasn’t their first time delaying proceedings. They wanted more confirmation they would have control over the funds once dispensed. They influenced a split vote at the last minute and stopped the homeless aid in its tracks.
With our city on the brink of another disaster, who gets extra money and credit shouldn’t matter right now. The safety of our children should. The money needs to go to the most effective outlets, not the hungriest pockets. The next vote is coming up on July 13th during the Board of Supervisors meeting. While Villapudua is hopeful, he is also talking to the Sacramento Budget Department to see how he can get the money allocated to Stockton released and put to work without the official city approval.
According to Assemblyman Villaudua, “The problem is that these very concrete issues for the citizens have become political. Luckily Mayor Lincoln and county supervisors Tom Patti and Robert Rickman have remained steadfast in their goal of getting things done. You have timelines. When you sign the dotted line and accept these funds, you do it. We don’t have a hurdle. The money is there. There is no hurdle–just folks slowing things down. If it’s not the person you want to work with, check it at the door. Do the job you were elected for. The longer we wait, the worse it gets. It’s going to take a long time to get back to where we should be. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not giving up. We are going to get it done. We aren’t changing anything. We are trying to pass what’s in front of us and get people back to work.”
These words are a sign of hope, hope that someone with influence is fighting to keep the ball rolling. In terms of the county votes on homelessness, the newly elected Assemblyman and his coalition aren’t bringing forth new legislation but simply trying to move the initiatives created by the incumbents forward.
Mayor Lincoln, Assemblyman Villapudua, Supervisor Patti, and Supervisor Rickman are trying to skip the power grab and get the help the voters desperately need. County officials would gain more support than ever by coming together to truly fight for their community. Call it grassroots. Call it political reform. Call it what you like. The city needs to disperse the funding allocated to address the homeless situation before it is retracted.
July 13, 2021
On July 13th, the county will have the chance to get this right. Let’s encourage them to take action on the homeless epidemic. We can’t sacrifice a good solution in hopes of a perfect one that only exists within ideology. The city has rebuilt itself more than once and fosters leaders who make an impact on a national stage. We are lucky to have a new crop with the potential to do just that.
Email the following Supervisors and tell them to stop kicking the can down the road. Act now!
District 1 Supervisor Miguel Villapudua: [email protected] District 2 Supervisor Katherine Miller: [email protected]
District 4 Supervisor Chuck Winn: [email protected]