Fresno leaders grapple with best use of state money for homeless services

City cleans up large homeless encampment near Poverello House

Homeless people load up what they can carry during a clean up of the streets near the Poverello House. Fresno police say this is done daily as a result of the new no-camping ordinance.
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Homeless people load up what they can carry during a clean up of the streets near the Poverello House. Fresno police say this is done daily as a result of the new no-camping ordinance.

State money coming to the city and county of Fresno to combat homelessness sparked an hours-long debate at the Fresno City Council meeting Thursday about how to best use the money and provide services to people who are homeless.

The council considered an agreement to accept money from the state’s surplus budget for the Homeless Emergency Aid Program. Through the program, the city will receive $3.1 million and the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care will receive $9.5 million to combat homelessness. Mayor Lee Brand lobbied for the money with mayors from the state’s 11 biggest cities.

In the end, the council voted 6-0 to accept the state money. But, it rejected the mayor’s spending plan and instead decided to form a subcommittee to develop its own expenditure plan.

The council’s vote also included measures to use its own contract process — instead of partnering with the county and make sure those contracts reach performance benchmarks through audits. It also voted to ensure service locations are dispersed throughout the city and not concentrated in one district.

Prior to the vote, the discussion covered everything from homeless young people, the Continuum’s 2008 10-year plan to end homelessness, the location of homeless services and how the city and county should work together.

District 5 Councilman Luis Chavez said while working in City Hall for 10 years as a staffer and council member, he’s seen a lot of plans on homelessness that all use similar language. He voiced concern about millions of dollars spent over the years while the problem worsened.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Chavez said.

“The homeless issue has been a piggy bank for a limited number of organizations,” he said. “They’ve had a monopoly of funding guarantees for too long, and that’s bred complacency.”

Brand’s administration proposed a spending plan developed with community partners that would provide the following: a 100 bed low-barrier shelter with multiple locations; 60 bridge housing beds, also with multiple locations; six to eight youth shelter beds; and rapid rehousing for 152 families.

Through the plan, about 718 households on the verge of homelessness could be stabilized in existing housing.

“We’re not going to solve the problem with $3.1 million, but we think we can make a dent,” Brand said. “We don’t want to be a revolving door. We want to be a back door that gets people through the system.”

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Representatives from the Continuum, Fresno County Board of Supervisors, Fresno Housing Authority and Marjaree Mason Center all voiced support for the plan.

But residents and business owners of Fresno’s Chinatown were more skeptical. “Of course, when I heard about this it really hurt my heart,” said June Stanfield, a board member on the Chinatown Fresno Foundation.

“Here I am trying to make changes in my own neighborhood, and it gets back to us you want to continue using our district as a dumping ground.”

District 3 Councilman Miguel Arias said he wouldn’t settle for a solution that only offered services in his district.

Arias also requested a joint meeting with the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

Arias, Chavez, and District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld will be on the subcommittee and meet with H Spees in the mayor’s office to develop a spending plan to vote on by the end of the month.

Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.