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.
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.