Fresno seeks hope for homeless

Every night about 600 men and women in Fresno make their beds under bushes, highway overpasses, in cardboard boxes or at homeless shelters. Helping each chronically homeless person can cost local governments as much as $100,000 annually, says the Fresno County grand jury.

A report made public Tuesday by the grand jury, a government watchdog body, said efforts to house and help the chronically unsheltered homeless are piecemeal and costly. The city and county of Fresno need to do more to provide housing and services to the homeless who live outside every day, it concluded. Government agencies pay for temporary shelter, food, medical help and law enforcement and court costs, the report says. The grand jury, which based its report on interviews with local officials and news accounts, took the $100,000 cost estimate from reports by other cities.

Larry Arce, executive director of the Fresno Rescue Mission on G Street in downtown Fresno, has not read the report but thinks the $100,000 figure "is about right" locally.

The costs mount night after night, Arce said, to operate the Rescue Mission, pay staff, feed the homeless and give them showers and beds.

Living on the street takes a physical toll as well, Arce said. Many people living without shelter often need treatment for hepatitis, tuberculosis, diabetes, AIDS and mental illness.

The Rescue Mission, Poverello House, Marjaree Mason Center and Evangel Home coordinate well in providing services to the homeless, Arce said, but government agencies could be doing a better job.

"What the problem is, there's not a comprehensive plan. They really don't know the situation well enough to know what needs to be done. Those of us in the trenches know what needs to be done."

Chronically homeless people and families need more than housing, services and mental health care, Arce said. Many also need education to make them employable. Of 90 men currently in the Rescue Mission's recovery program, 17 cannot read, he said.

Local officials say more solutions to help the homeless are in the works. In January, the Fresno City Council and county Board of Supervisors approved forming a joint task force to spend about three months crafting a 10-year plan to combat homelessness.

"I think we've turned the corner. We're not looking at Band-Aids anymore," Fresno City Manager Andy Souza said. "What we're excited about is working with the county on a comprehensive plan, which we haven't had before."

Souza said the 10-year plan will address the grand jury's four recommendations to the city and county.

Those recommendations, which are not binding, include providing an annual report on the cost of local homelessness, coordinating homeless services, creating permanent transitional housing for the homeless and expanding an online listing of resources for the homeless.

The task force will look at homelessness plans developed by other cities in formulating its own plan, said Bart Bohn, Fresno County administrative officer.

"These are complicated issues and there won't be simple solutions," said Bohn, who had not yet read the report.

"The question is, do we continue to serve the homeless in the way they are surviving on the street, or focus our resources on keeping people from becoming homeless," Bohn said.

The grand jury says nonprofit agencies in Fresno and Madera counties help about 8,000 homeless people annually.

Supervisor Henry Perea said the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved an agreement with the county's housing authority to develop a plan to begin spending $6 million this year on housing for the mentally ill and homeless.

Providing housing may reduce the cost of services to the homeless. The grand jury suggested the Housing First program developed in Boston, Mass.

The city of Portland and Multnomah County in Oregon began a 10-year plan to combat homelessness in 2004 using the Housing First model. More than 1,500 chronically homeless people have moved into housing since then, said Heather Lyons, homeless program manager for Portland.

"It's not so much that costs have gone down, but there are appropriate use of services," Lyons said, such as seeing a doctor instead of seeking medical help in emergency rooms.

Cynthia Sterling's Fresno City Council district covers downtown Fresno, where most of the city's homeless live. She said the first step to ending homelessness is providing good quality housing with running water, a bathroom, heating and air conditioning.

"The thread that binds all of this is housing first and then services," Sterling said.