Fresno County approves another board on homelessness. Here’s what makes it unique

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a new board that they said would provide greater flexibility for dealing with the area’s homeless problems — saying issues like domestic violence and human trafficking are too complex to be handled by one committee.

The county’s already part of the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care, a decade-old group of homeless advocates and service providers with its own governing board.

The board by a 4-1 vote approved assembling a new board for a group called “Street2Home.” Supervisor Steve Brandau cast the sole “no” vote without an explanation.

The new board could help the county attract more money to address homeless issues from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to county CAO Jean Rousseau. The Street2Home board should also have fewer restrictions, he said.

“One of the challenges that the Continuum of Care has had are the rules they have to play under for the funding from HUD,” Rousseau said. “That funding focuses predominantly on the folks that have been homeless for a (long) period of time, the chronically homeless.”

There are about 2,500 homeless people in Fresno and Madera counties, according to the latest annual tally from the Continuum of Care.

While Continuum of Care counts the number of homeless and oversees the region’s shelter beds, Street2Home will be focused on reducing the number of homeless, according to officials. The programs would include efforts to help prevent homelessness, such as providing shelter for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

Street2Home’s board is to be made up elected officials and county employees, as well as representatives from business, nonprofit and hospital communities.

Supervisor Sal Quintero said he was hesitant to create another bureaucratic board for Street2Home that looked similar to the board for Continuum. He ultimately supported the new board.

“I’m a little bit leery of continuing to (establish) structures that seem to be the same structures that we’ve used over the years with different names, different pillars and, to some degree, the same results,” Quintero said.

A number of advocates and officials called on the board to make a commitment to help victims of domestic violence and human trafficking by putting those specific words in the plan’s language.

Fresno has a long history of rampant human trafficking. So much so the Fresno County juvenile court in 2017 established a courtroom dedicated solely to human trafficking cases.

In the past three years, victim advocacy group Breaking the Chains has worked with 557 juvenile and adult victims of trafficking in the Fresno area, according to founder Debra Rush. She said 75% percent of those clients were homeless before seeking help from her agency.

The Board of Supervisors appeared to be willing Tuesday to make sure victims of domestic violence and human trafficking are included in the plan’s language, but leaders said they’d have to vote on the issue at a separate meeting.

“I’ve heard loud and clear that victims of domestic violence as well as human trafficking victims need to be incorporated somehow into the 14-point plan,” Board Chairman Nathan Magsig said.

Housing the homeless isn’t the only effort related to that issue being pursued by leaders.

Fresno County in September joined a push to overturn the case of Martin v. City of Boise, a recent court ruling that forbids cities and counties from criminalizing homeless camping.

The Boise ruling says if there’s no shelter option, the government cannot criminalize homeless people for sleeping in public on the “false premise” that they had a choice in the matter. Leaders around the state say the ruling tied their hands in dealing with the complicated problem.

Solving homelessness remains a priority in Fresno and Fresno County, according to H. Spees, the director of strategic initiatives for Fresno Mayor Lee Brand. “Homelessness is the major quality of life issue in the city of Fresno,” he said.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.