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Fresno County task force working to clean up homeless encampments

The Clinica Sierra Vista mobile clinic paid a visit to a homeless encampment in a dry ditch at Mendota in October 2015. Fresno County agencies are trying to combat homelessness as encampments grow on rural private properties across the county.
The Clinica Sierra Vista mobile clinic paid a visit to a homeless encampment in a dry ditch at Mendota in October 2015. Fresno County agencies are trying to combat homelessness as encampments grow on rural private properties across the county. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Fresno County is making strides to combat homelessness as encampments grow on rural private properties across the county.

An eviction late last year of an encampment on land owned by the Westlands Water District in Mendota spearheaded the county’s move to be more proactive.

A task force made up of county departments like public works and planning, social services, behavioral health and the Sheriff’s Office, with help from the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, was created in March to discuss the problem and come up with a list of best practices.

The group on Tuesday shared with the Fresno County Board of Supervisors what they have done, the challenges and their ongoing efforts.

“We’re not going to solve homelessness, but we can make an impact,” sheriff’s Deputy Doug Richardson said.

Since the beginning of the year, the Sheriff’s Office has received 245 calls about the homeless. The Fresno Madera Continuum of Care estimates the 2016 homeless population in Fresno and Madera counties at 1,622 people. It did not separate numbers out for each county.

Encampments can grow to more than 30 people, with many now living on private property instead of public streets, the task force said. The Sheriff’s Office prioritizes complaints by looking at the health and safety hazards, whether an encampment is close to a school, whether there is a lot of crime, and other factors, Richardson said.

The county departments assist the Sheriff’s Office in clearing encampments. The Department of Public Health removes hazardous materials including needles and waste. The Department of Behavioral Health offers housing and treatment options to the homeless with help from the Continuum of Care.

The public works department has a big job, often having to close down an entire office to provide people and equipment. For example, eight public works employees participated in a one-day cleanup at Shields and Sierra Vista avenues, 11 employees took part in a two-day cleanup at Shields and Valentine avenues and one worked at the Chinese cemetery at Hughes and Belmont avenues. To date, the department has spent $56,000 for homeless encampment cleanup.

“Individual departments are absorbing the costs,” said County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau. If this problem grows, the county will have to talk about ways to fund the cost, he said.

There are a number of challenges in fighting homelessness. Encampments on private property can be a problem to remove if landowners are not responsive or cooperative. A property owner also has to be vigilant in keeping land clear, the task force said.

Good news is that the owner at Shields and Valentine put a fence around the property and the neighbor seems to be doing the same, Richardson said.

But perhaps the biggest problem is getting the homeless to accept help. Most refuse the first time, said Jody Ketcheside, board chair for the Continuum of Care. The key goal is to get the homeless into permanent housing. Most of those who do accept housing don’t return to the streets, Ketcheside said.

Richardson sees cleanup as the first step to success.

Supervisor Henry Perea agrees. “I think we’re having a positive impact and as we transition into (providing) services, which is what we want, and we get them off the streets, that’s a win,” Perea said.

“And, of course, on the other side of that are our neighborhoods. People want a quality of life in their neighborhoods. They don’t want this in their backyards and the dirty needles and everything that goes with it.”

BoNhia Lee: 559-441-6495, @bonhialee

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