About 100 volunteers dispersed throughout Fresno and Madera counties Thursday morning to finish an annual multi-agency survey of homeless people – a practice that organizers believe has helped transform Fresno’s homeless situation from one of the worst in the country to one of the best.
“We will end veteran homelessness this year and chronic homelessness shortly after that,” said Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority. “And we will reduce functional homelessness (the number of homeless vs. the number of shelter beds available) to zero soon after that.”
Representatives from the Fresno Housing Authority, Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, WestCare California, city and county agencies and local faith-based groups donned orange shirts and piled into minivans to attempt to catalog every person living on the streets in an area populated by more than 1 million people.
The surveys are sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will use the data to determine federal funding for local agencies. The surveys have been done every year for more than a decade.
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Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin was among the volunteers.
“People will get access to services today because of what you’re doing,” she told the crowd before the 10 a.m. sendoff. “Think of the family units, too. Thousands of people connected to those on the street will be affected by your actions today.”
Swearengin and other leaders in both counties have overseen improvements in total homelessness. According to HUD, the counties saw a 34 percent reduction in total homelessness between 2014 and 2015 and a 60 percent decrease over the past five years.
63 percentThe drop in homelessness among veterans in Fresno and Madera counties since 2011.
Swearengin told the crowd that approaching former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry about the issue in 2005 ultimately led her to run for office.
“This (ending homelessness) might be what my time in office is about,” said Swearengin, who is going into her final year as mayor. “Six or seven years ago, we were one of the worst in the country. Now we are approaching functional zero.”
The morning briefing concluded around 10 a.m., and the teams set out to finish the three-day survey process. Every homeless person is counted, but answering the questionnaire is voluntary. Hygiene kits contain soap and shampoo or kits with non-perishable food are given to those who are located far from services, such as those living in county riverbeds.
During the survey, homeless people were asked a series of questions ranging from basic background to whether they need physical or medical care. The survey also notes those who are chronically homeless or military veterans.
Some teams, like those surveying downtown Fresno, were busy talking to those who were visibly homeless. However, others faced the daunting task of finding those living in more remote areas.
A team of four WestCare coordinators and one Fresno County employee found this out. They were tasked with checking several “hot spots” noted on a map of the San Joaquin River.
The team descended into the riverbed near the Fresno County/Madera County border. They immediately found a tent – surrounded by five or six trash bags filled with food and clothes – that was unoccupied.
“Those living out here are a long way from food or services,” said Giovanni Santangelo, of WestCare. He spoke to one of the tent’s residents – a man – when the group first visited the area Tuesday night.
At midnight last night, we went home. But we knew everyone we had surveyed that day had six more hours of darkness and uncertainty.
Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority
For homeless people living in rural areas like this, it can take a day or more to walk to the nearest store. Finding them during the day can be tough, the group said.
When asked if finding those who may not necessarily want to be found was a tough part of the job, several of the group members nodded.
Santangelo, however, disagreed.
“It’s not that they don’t want to be found,” he said. “They just want to feel safe and secure.”
After about 90 minutes of searching the river area on foot and in their minivan, the team had found only evidence of people living along the riverbed. There was a shelter made entirely of branches near another made with a weathered tarp stretched across a few dying tree limbs. What once had been a light pink blanket with darker pink butterflies sat next to a discarded pair of Clovis West High School gym shorts.
If team members were discouraged, they didn’t show it.
“It isn’t frustrating,” said Jody Ketcheside, one of the survey’s organizers. “Because of all this rain, the riverbed isn’t a pleasant place to be. But we’ll go there to ensure that every nook and cranny in this area is accounted for.”