A federal court decision on homelessness is forcing Fresno’s leaders to step up and address the issue, and the Fresno City Council took steps this week that could lead to a new homeless shelter in the city.
The City Council at Thursday’s meeting asked City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter to “take all necessary actions to establish a come-as-you-are shelter for the homeless.” Quan-Schecter will report back on the progress and options in 90 days.
The direction was an addition to an amendment to the city’s no-camping ordinance. The amendment restricts police from citing an individual for illegal camping if no shelter beds are available, a necessary update to the ordinance after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month in a Boise, Idaho case that punishing homeless people for camping amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The council discussed designating $1 million in housing funding for a sprung structure that could temporarily house about 200 people and receive services. The logical place for the structure is at the Poverello House, said District 5 Councilman Luis Chavez, since the infrastructure, dog kennels and laundry services already exist there.
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Mike Rhodes, a longtime homeless advocate in Fresno, called Thursday’s decision a good step.
“I see this new development as being a positive step forward,” he said on Facebook. “It won’t END homelessness, but it is way better than bulldozing homeless encampments. The next step is to provide every homeless person decent affordable housing and whatever social services they need to get them back on their feet — like job training, mental health services etc.”
Council members and other city staff spoke passionately at Thursday’s council meeting, weighing how to treat the city’s homeless population with compassion while reducing nuisances and health and safety hazards for residents and businesses.
While Council President Esmeralda Soria spoke about treating people who are homeless as humans, Councilman Clint Olivier said he’d like to see the city address residents’ and business owners’ rights instead of “coddling” vagrants who are “pillaging” the city. The city needs to find a happy medium, he said.
Councilman Garry Bredefeld agreed, saying business owners and residents shouldn’t have to deal with feces on their property and witnessing drug deals or sexual activity.
Council members acknowledged their colleague District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau for his work on the homeless issue since the no-camping ordinance passed. Brandau traveled to San Diego and other parts of the state to study how other jurisdictions are handling the issue.
“At the foundation of the problem is we don’t have enough beds in Fresno to take care of the people who need help,” Brandau said. “We need to address that in the city of Fresno.”
He believes the transitional, low-barrier shelter is the solution, he said.
In 2017, the Point in Time count identified 1,864 people living homeless in Fresno County. The Poverello House is the county’s only “low-barrier” shelter, meaning it offers a bed to someone “no questions asked.” The Pov has 72 low-barrier beds.
Cruz Avila, the CEO of the Poverello House, said he has been in talks with city, county and nonprofit leaders for over a year trying to find the best solutions to address homelessness.
“We’re humbled and excited about what could come because of the need out there,” he said, noting he and his staff see the homeless emergency everyday when arriving to work.
Chavez noted there’s lots of great service providers in the city, but they’re operating in silos. Collaboration between the city, county and nonprofit sector is key, he said.
Chavez’s went through an educational process on the issue after an organized cleanup at Fancher Creek in his district. There, he spoke with homeless women about their challenges. “To see women in that situation was touching for me. It hit home,” he said. “We have to do better.”
H. Spees, who works for Mayor Lee Brand, gave a presentation on the mayor’s “Street2Home” initiative, which puts together a collaborative council to strategically address the issue. Brand also lobbied with mayors from the state’s biggest 11 cities to secure funding from California’s budget surplus to address homelessness. Fresno is poised to receive about $3.1 million from that, and the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care will receive about $9.4 million, Spees said.