The Homeless Problem: Why Aren't More Families Stepping Up?

AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Christine Chavez, a California single mother, has been living on the street for some time, and now she’s dead, killed accidentally by a lawnmower while sleeping in a grassy area.

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A homeless mother sleeping in a California park was killed last week after she was run over by a lawnmower — and investigators left “chunks” of her body strewn across the grass, her family claims.

Christine Chavez, 27, was lying in the tall grass of Beard Brook Park in Modesto around noon on July 8 when an employee riding a John Deere tractor with a pull-behind mower swept the area.

The unidentified worker said he didn’t see the sleeping woman until he “noticed a body in the grass he had already made a pass through,” Modesto police said.

The employee called 911, but Chavez was pronounced dead at the scene.

Her family, understandably, is grieving and upset:

Chavez’s father, Christopher, said he was able to pocket pieces of his daughter’s bones, skull and teeth in the days after her death.

The woman’s family believes the careless handling of her remains might be because she was one of the city’s thousands of homeless residents.

Chavez, who has a 9-year-old daughter, had been transient for the last three or four years and often slept at the park, which was officially acquired by nearby E&J Gallo Winery the day before the tragic death, according to the Modesto Bee.

And, of course, the deceased woman’s family wants “justice”:

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Chavez’s family is now calling for justice in their loved one’s death and for stronger city ordinances that protect homeless people.

“She didn’t deserve that for that reason, for being homeless,” said her older brother Randy Chavez, 33, of Arizona. “My sister was loved. The only thing she wanted was to be free.”

“We want ordinances to change so it doesn’t happen again. Regardless if they are homeless they are still people and should be treated the same as any other people.”

There’s a dearth of information on the family, and that’s appropriate; they were not living on the streets, and they do have a right to personal privacy. But even so, they have now projected themselves into public view, and so some questions arise:

  • Ms. Chavez had been living on the street for some time. Are we to understand that, given the number of family members that are now turning up to demand justice, not one of them had a spare room to take her in?
  • Was she a substance abuser (alcohol, drugs?) If so, was anyone in her family trying to help her into treatment?
  • Who’s taking care of her daughter? Could they not spare a room or even some floor space?
  • How, exactly, does the family want ordinances to change? They want “stronger ordinances that protect homeless people,” but what, specifically, is proposed? A camping ban, perhaps, so homeless people won’t fall asleep in tall grass on private property?
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It’s important to note that she wasn’t killed “for being homeless,” as her brother said. She was killed in a sad, tragic accident because she fell asleep in an area of high grass and weeds that was, by the way, private property.

The Modesto Bee has some more details on the incident, and there’s one key piece of information:

Gallo spokeswoman Krista Noonan released a written statement about the incident and said the company would have no further comment. “Gallo acquired the Beard Brook Park property in Modesto on Friday, July 7, 2023. On Saturday, July 8, 2023, a landscaping contractor was hired to perform weed abatement and fire prevention services. There was an accident at approximately 12:00 p.m. involving the contractor’s tractor and an individual who was not visible and laying in a tall, weeded area. The contractor immediately contacted the Modesto Police Department via 911, and upon arrival, MPD Officers declared the individual was deceased.”

This wasn’t a person with a push mower. If you’re not familiar with this kind of equipment, what was likely used is a utility tractor with a big “bush hog” mower with large, sharp blades. These mowers are generally mounted on the rear of the tractor; they are intended for tall, tightly packed grass and weeds and even woody brush. They are also pretty noisy, and operators are generally wearing hearing protection when working.

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As the tractor precedes the mower, if the grass was tall enough, it’s unlikely the operator would have known anything was amiss until he could see the mowed area on his next pass — which, apparently, is precisely what happened.

Ms. Chavez’s death is sad and tragic. Her family is suffering and deserves sympathy, as does the driver of the tractor/mower, who has to be feeling terrible about the whole thing as well. But honestly, the only ordinance change that could have prevented this would be a ban on homeless camping or sleeping on private property.

But the question remains: When Christine Chavez was living on the streets, where was her family?

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