By Bob McCloskey
The 2019–2020 Fresno County Civil Grand Jury recently reported its findings in an investigation into the City of Fresno and County of Fresno actions addressing homelessness in the Fresno area. The report finds that the City and County’s “current efforts lack coordination and threaten the very objective to be achieved, eliminating homelessness.” There is no single organization with accountability for oversight of provided programs and services, the Grand Jury found.
Mike Rhodes, a homeless advocate in Fresno, said he was not surprised by the report. Rhodes said, “This report is not at all surprising to anyone familiar with the situation. It is what homeless people asked me from day one when I became involved with this issue. How can so many millions of dollars flow into this city and so little be done to end homelessness?”
The Grand Jury report focuses on the Continuum of Care.
Currently, the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC) is the organization required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to oversee housing and many other services to meet the needs of the homeless population. The FMCoC makes recommendations for how federal HUD funds are allocated for homeless services in Fresno and Madera counties.
The membership consists of city, county and other local government agencies and nonprofit homeless service providers. There are 44 Continuum of Care organizations around the nation that work with HUD to provide federally funded services to homeless people. Continuum of Care Board members are often representatives of the local organizations that receive federal HUD funds for homeless services.
During the Grand Jury’s interviews, it was clear that the FMCoC, as a volunteer organization, does not have the resources needed to provide adequate coordination and oversight. There was $11 million in HUD funding available to the member organizations of the Fresno-Madera CoC in fiscal 2019.
Additional federal funding includes the Homeless Housing Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) program, established in 2019 to provide block grants to local jurisdictions. In the current funding cycle, 44 CoCs nationwide are jointly receiving $190 million, 13 cities including Fresno are dividing $275 million and 58 counties will share $175 million. More recent funding by the state legislature includes the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP), which awarded $3 million to the City and $9 million to the FMCoC in 2019.
In 2008, Fresno City and County adopted the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. An update in 2016 established a model of “Housing First.” In this model, a person is housed and then provided necessary services to sustain housing and lead to independence.
The Street2Home organization was established in 2018 to implement the Housing First model and facilitate collaboration among the CoC, the Fresno Housing Authority and First Steps Home, a nonprofit service provider. To date, more than two years later, the Street2Home organization has failed to hire critical staff and, so far, the effort is stalled.
The vision statement of the 2008 10-Year Plan was that Fresno County residents will have permanent housing and access to resources and support services to prevent chronic homelessness. Despite the County’s vision statement and the 10-Year Plan, permanent supportive housing (PSH) for nonveterans has not increased since 2016, and remains at just 269 units.
The lack of transparency and accountability outlined in the Grand Jury report demands community action. Elected officials must be held accountable for the distribution of our public funds.
Despite the efforts of the City, the County and the FMCoC, homelessness has dramatically increased. According to point-in-time data (the homeless population count by the FMCoC), the number of unsheltered people has doubled in the past two years, from 1,834 in 2018 to 3,251 persons in 2020. Many experts consider this to be a significant undercount.
Transparency is required as even more millions are in the pipeline for homeless housing. In March and April 2020, the Fresno Bee reported that Fresno and Madera counties received $2 million in state funding, and then another $3 million from the federal government, to provide Covid-related emergency housing.
On Sept. 27, it was announced that $6 million of state aid was allocated to purchase and rehab the Motel 99.
On Oct. 19, the City announced more state funding, $15.3 million, to purchase and renovate 160 units at the Smugglers Inn. It was announced at the same time that the City would get an additional $16 million to purchase and rehab three more motels. All properties have to be purchased by Jan. 1, 2021.
The City, County, Fresno Housing Authority and FMCoC are recipients of more than $100 million in state and federal funds for the Fresno area homeless population in 2020. Most of this new funding remains unspent.
“I agree that the current system is not working, but we need to go beyond providing oversight of the social service and government agencies involved,” Rhodes said. “We must care for the immediate needs of the homeless, like a safe and legal place to live. Make sure everyone has drinking water, a place to go to the bathroom and trash pickup. That alone would vastly improve people’s lives and the health and sanitation of this city.
“Next, every homeless person is given housing and whatever social services they need to live a healthier and happier life. This isn’t rocket science. You just have to treat people with dignity and respect. Treat them like you would like to be treated if you were homeless.”
Bob McCloskey is a local activist and member of the Fresno Homeless Advocates. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grand Jury Report
In its conclusions, the Grand Jury found that
- There is a lack of robust central coordination in providing homeless services in Fresno County.
- Although funding is available, the three staff positions recommended in the Street2Home report remain unfilled.
- The FMCoC does not adequately communicate its processes and operations to allay concerns that potential conflicts of interests may exist among the Board members. However, the FMCoC is operating within the guidelines established by HUD.
- There is a lack of communication with the public at large regarding services provided for the homeless and the success of efforts to reduce the homeless population.
The Grand Jury’s six recommendations include the following:
- Street2Home Board vacancies should be filled by 12-31-2020.
- Street2Home staff vacancies should be filled by 3-31-2021.
- The Street2Home organization should operate with transparency and community involvement.
- The FMCoC should update its website with member information, agendas, minutes, funding opportunities and funding awards, no later than March 31, 2021.
- The City and County should perform and publish quarterly audits of all homeless grants to ensure that funds are being spent appropriately, services are being provided and goals are being met.
- The FMCoC should also consider following Brown Act guidelines for posting meeting notices and also inform the members and the public about the application and ranking process for organizations that apply for HUD awards.