More homeless people than ever in Fresno

May 21, 2011 

Ending homelessness in Fresno is like battling a wildfire -- douse one hot spot and another quickly sparks up.

The city's one-day count, due out later this month, will reveal that more people are homeless than ever before despite the fact that the city -- with a small army of other agencies -- has placed thousands in homes over the past few years.

"I'm sure it's going to be more than 4,000," Gregory Barfield, Fresno's homeless prevention coordinator, says of the new homeless count.

That means Fresno has about 500 more homeless people than in 2009, when it counted 3,591 people living in temporary housing or without shelter.

And many are spreading out from downtown, turning up in places like north Fresno and east toward Clovis.

City officials say they're committed to more aggressively finding homes for homeless people because studies show that it greatly reduces the cost of public services they use.

But they're up against a tough economy that keeps putting people out of work, with nowhere to go.

Finding housing

Jim Mills isn't included in this year's count because he became homeless in March, a couple of months after the city's survey.

Clad in hand-me-down trousers, T-shirt and suspenders, Mills sat in a chair under an awning at the Michael McGarvin Jr. Village of Hope at Poverello House downtown one recent afternoon.

Mills, 65, says his road to homelessness began on Feb. 6 -- Super Bowl Sunday -- when he found his housemate dead at home of natural causes. The shock -- and the stress of not having enough money to pay the rent himself -- pushed Mills to the brink of suicide.

"I realized I needed help," he says.

Mills left behind everything he owned, spent time in a hospital and by mid-March was living in one of the 66 small wooden sheds at the Village of Hope.

Mills says he has been approved for public housing and hopes to have a home of his own soon.

That's how the city of Fresno hopes the homeless problem will eventually end, with people transitioning into homes of their own.

Three years ago, city and Fresno County officials launched the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Government agencies and nonprofits would team up to house the homeless, find jobs for them and prevent new homelessness.

The city commissioned a cost study, released last year, that said finding homes for homeless people saves money.

Homeless people use a lot of costly public services -- emergency-room visits, hospital stays, police and jail time -- but use less of these once they have a place to live, say report authors Dennis Culhane and Stephen Metraux of the University of Philadelphia.

In fact, the savings "can entirely offset the cost of housing," they say.

Based on studies in other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and Seattle, the report estimated the cost of providing public services to 941 homeless people in Fresno would be about $19 million a year.

By comparison, the cost of providing housing for the same number of people would be about $883,320 per year, according to the report. The estimated cost of providing public services for those people would be reduced to about $2 million.

A major goal of the Ten Year Plan is to create or find 100 housing units each year. By 2018, about 950 housing units would be built or found to house 1,093 people at a total cost of about $7.3 million.

The results have been encouraging:

-- In 2009, the city found homes for more than 100 people who were living in the dilapidated Storyland Motel on North Motel Drive, which the city shut down, and found apartments for 103 others who had been living in an encampment on H Street.

-- In 2010, the city and county helped 1,601 people to get off the streets and into housing or remain in their homes they were going to lose, Barfield says.

The city last year also launched the nonprofit First Steps Home to raise money for the Ten Year Plan. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin set a goal to raise about $1 million each year, but so far the city has commitments for only $540,000, she says, including a $40,000 donation received Friday.

"We're going to kick-start our fundraising efforts again," Swearengin says. The city will soon launch a texting campaign to make it easier for people to contribute.

Why more homeless

But the homeless just keep coming. Some are mentally ill and substance abusers. Many have lost work and then just about everything else.

That's what happened to James Marshall, 43, who lives with a small group of other homeless people near River Park in north Fresno.

The building slump cost Marshall, a journeyman tile layer, his job with a construction company. "In a slow week, I could make $1,500," Marshall says.

He lived on unemployment for a while, but has been homeless for three years. "I lost everything, but I kept my tools," says Marshall, who now lives on $472 a month in public assistance and food stamps.

Preston Johnson moved from Florida to Fresno to find work, thinking California would be the land of opportunity. The move turned his life upside-down.

Johnson, 29, eventually found a job as a waiter at the Claim Jumper restaurant near River Park. But when the restaurant closed in December, he found himself without an income or a place to live.

Johnson, who has spent nights in parks or under bridges in north Fresno, says he was stabbed five times in his lower back during a dispute with other homeless people at Woodward Park.

"I'm going home to Florida," says Johnson, sitting on a bench just yards from the shuttered Claim Jumper restaurant. "All my family's there. I think I have a job lined up tending bar."

For the purpose of the count, homelessness isn't defined only as living on the street. People in temporary housing also are considered homeless.

Al Williams, 63, has lived both ways. For the past 20 years, when he hasn't had a job, as he does now, Williams lived "cowboy style," sleeping under the stars at Roeding Park.

Gina Romero, 40, shares a home with a man she calls "my guy," but had lived on the streets for more than two years. Her life crumbled because of health problems, family disputes and drugs.

"I was in a state of mind not feeling good about myself so I didn't want to be around anyone else," she says.

"I didn't want to admit I was full-fledged homeless. It was denial: I'm not really homeless; I'm just crashing at a friend's place."

Romero stayed with friends or slept outside. Schools were her favorite places to find a safe spot to sleep. But it had to be near a public restroom, like a gas station, market or fast-food place.

What's next?

Williams, Barfield and others say some homeless people will never make it off the streets.

"You're always going to have that small percent who will dig in their heels and not let anyone help them," says Larry Arce, chief executive officer of the Fresno Rescue Mission.

The number of homeless people "has been escalating for the last decade," Arce says, but Fresno shouldn't ignore the problem.

"If you're a human being, you should have some compassion," he says. When he sees a homeless person, "I don't see that individual, I see them as a little baby. Everyone was the child of a mother."

"I help the homeless because I love them," he says.

As the city seeks more funding for its Ten Year Plan, efforts continue to move people off the streets.

Outreach teams regularly search for groups of people living in parks, behind vacant buildings and on highway berms to help them get off the streets.

Since 2009, Fresno has shut down shanty towns on F and H streets.

But a shanty town of about 300 on G Street is growing, with wood shacks now overflowing into the street. And some homeless are migrating to north Fresno and toward Clovis to avoid the drug dealers they say prey on downtown squatters.

"The next big step is to address the G Street encampment," Swearengin says.

G Street attracts people who have nowhere to go, who are substance-abusers or who just got out of prison, Arce says. The area is close to hot meals and other services at the mission across G Street and at the Poverello House on F Street.

The plan is to shut them down like the city did on F and H streets, Swearengin says, by finding housing and help for as many as possible.

City officials believe that approach works. They say most of the people from those camps remain in the housing they found after the closures.

"I thank God for this place," says Christine Lilly, 39, who shares a shed at the Village of Hope with her boyfriend.

But she yearns for something better: "I want to find a good job and get out of here, to have my own place."

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