Editor’s note: In an effort to provide additional perspectives on the homeless crisis, we are publishing some content from our partners that is not directly related to Palm Springs.
By Melissa Montalvo
The city of Fresno added hundreds of shelter beds to provide emergency and temporary shelter, as well as transitional housing, to unhoused residents amid the pandemic, according to local leaders. It also provided homelessness services to thousands of people between July 2019 and December 2021, they said.
But the city has more work to do to serve the needs of the region’s homeless population, city officials and homeless advocates said during last Thursday’s city council meeting.
“We made progress, but there’s no cause for celebration,” H Spees, director of housing and homelessness for the city of Fresno, said during the meeting, while providing an update on the city’s efforts to address homelessness.
City leaders estimate that Fresno’s homeless population is about 4,200, while the Fresno-Madera homeless population is about 5,200.
Between July 2019 and December 2021, the Fresno area received more than $144 million from federal, state and local sources to increase homelessness services in 2021. These funds went to the city, the county, the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care and the Fresno Housing Authority.
The city of Fresno received $60 million of that funding, which it used to add 510 shelter beds and provide emergency and temporary shelter and transitional housing. The city only had 10 shelter beds in its charge before the pandemic, according to city leaders.
The city said it assisted 8,019 people with one or more services between July 2019 and December 2021, but acknowledged that some people could have been double-counted if they engaged with one or of the city’s services. Newly elected council President Nelson Esparza said the city has made progress in its homelessness response, but asked to see more detail in the city’s plan to address the causes of the “exponential” growth in homelessness.
“That’s really been probably the biggest impediment to progress,” said Esparza.
Criticism of the city’s homelessness response came just days before the Fresno County Grand Jury this week released a final report on its 2019-2020 investigations. Jurors found that Fresno County and the city of Fresno’s homelessness responses lacked oversight and transparency.
How many homeless residents are there in Fresno?
City officials said they estimate that the Fresno-Madera area homeless population experienced a 43% increase from the pre-pandemic 2020 estimate of 3,641.
Officials are expected to release an updated estimate of the Fresno-Madera region’s homeless population later this year, after the annual point-in-time count takes place Feb. 23-25. As part of the count, Fresno service providers go out and tally the number of people experiencing homelessness. It is a crucial metric to help government officials calculate the amount of money needed to help the people living on the city’s streets, but some homeless advocates say the count is inaccurate and could actually be much higher.
The count was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jody Ketcheside, vice chair of the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, which oversees the point-in-time count, said she expects the area’s homeless population to either stay the same or be “a little higher” based on what she’s seeing and hearing on the streets.
Housing advocates say that without protections and affordable housing options, many of Fresno’s renters risk entering into homelessness.
A September 2021 analysis by planning platform Urban Footprint shows that nearly 20% of Fresno renters, or 16,920 households, risk being evicted without protections. And despite the 18-month statewide eviction moratorium, hundreds of households in the central San Joaquin Valley were evicted during the pandemic, according to lockout data analyzed by the Fresno Bee.
“There continues to be an ongoing housing crisis, families threatened with evictions, being taken advantage of, living in motels with their children,” Alexandra Alvarado, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley, said during Thursday’s city council meeting.
While the city of Fresno’s eviction moratorium is still in place, city leaders said they’re going to revisit plans for the moratorium in February, when the omicron-fueled coronavirus surge is expected to slow down.
Advocates question city’s data on homeless residents
Officials said 4,017 people had exited the city’s homelessness system between July 2019 and December 2021, and 1,039 exited into permanent housing.
During Thursday’s meeting, several community advocates pointed to the fact that about a quarter of the people who’d left the homelessness system had exited into permanent housing, and asked for more transparency on what constitutes an “exit.”
“Exiting somebody out of one shelter and transporting them to another should not be considered a safe exit,” said homelessness advocate Dez Martinez.
In response, Ketcheside, who is also regional director of Turning Point of Central California, a nonprofit organization that runs a number of the city’s triage centers, said the city does not track transfers between shelters as “exits.”
“I want to point out here that we do not count transferring to another shelter as a safe exit,” Ketcheside said.
Spees, with the city, agreed. In an email statement to The Bee, he said the 2,978 individuals that exited the system but did not enter permanent housing went to places like temporary housing, substance abuse facilities, a relative’s residence, or they just left and chose not to stay at the shelter.
Advocates also questioned why people would be removed from shelters – a criticism frequently raised by advocates and community members. Ketcheside said the top reasons why someone would be removed from shelters are either major safety issues such as violence and threats, major damage to facilities, or in the case of the family shelter at Step Up on 99, domestic violence.
During the next city council meeting on Jan. 27, the city will discuss the potential to add fines and misdemeanor charges if people enter blocked off abatement zones, where encampments on private property are cleaned up – an idea that also faces opposition from the community.
“Do not continue to criminalize homelessness and poverty,” said Alvarado with Faith in the Valley.
City council plans to funds shelters, services in 2022
City leaders have pledged to continue funding existing services for the homeless and seek additional funding for more projects.
The city will continue operating its shelters and triage centers, which have secure funding until 2024.
During the Jan. 13 meeting, the city council approved several agreements to allocate an additional $2.2 million in federal funding to local agencies that have been providing emergency shelter for individuals during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Spees said the city has also created a Homeless Assistance Response Team, and will share an update on deployment of this team in the next city council meeting on Jan. 27. The HART program will focus on the city’s response to street homelessness and encampments, said Spees.
More support is also on the way to the existing Project Homekey sites along Motel Drive.
Councilmember Miguel Arias said he is working with state and city leadership to set up a medical treatment facility in partnership with UC San Francisco to support the homeless community around the existing Motel Drive Project Homekey sites.
The mayor’s office is currently taking inventory of the vacant city lots, in preparation for the potential construction of pallet shelters and tiny homes as part of its “One Fresno” housing plan, which is expected to be completed in early April.
Mayor Jerry Dyer also said that he is in conversation with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to discuss potential funding opportunities from the state budget surplus to support infill housing, downtown housing, homeless initiatives, encampments and bridge housing.
Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
Fresno Bee/Fresnoland reporter Cassandra Garibay contributed to this story.