I went to the grand opening of the Renaissance at Santa Clara in November. The $11 million project was built to provide 69 units (340 square feet each) to help end homelessness in Fresno. If you do the math, that is more than $159,000 per unit. Although they are a little bigger than the tool sheds for the homeless located at the Poverello House, they are a lot more expensive.
Preston Prince, the director at the Fresno Housing Authority, has said he will sit down and show me how this makes financial sense, but as of the deadline for this edition of this newspaper, the meeting has not been scheduled. I must admit that I’m more than a little skeptical about whether a development like this is in the best interest of the homeless, or if it is primarily a benefit to the builders, developers and social work professionals who attended the grand opening.
The theory behind housing projects like this is that if you provide homeless people with stable housing and have social services available to them, they will be able to overcome the obstacles that hold them back from living a healthier and happier life. I agree with that. I also believe that providing homeless people with housing will actually save us all money in the long run. Maybe even spending $159,000 per unit will result in a net savings and improve homeless people’s lives.
If that is true, then why doesn’t local, state and federal government build more projects like the Renaissance at Santa Clara and save us even more money? The conclusion I have come to, after looking at this issue for many years, is that nobody (in Fresno at least) has figured out how to take the potential savings from reduced hospital usage, police resources and other social services (not to mention the advantage of each person’s increased productivity) and convert that into the housing needed to end homelessness. We are largely trapped in the old paradigm of shelters and putting band-aids on the problem without dealing with the root cause.
To further exacerbate the homeless issue, the City of Fresno has refused to effectively deal with the thousands of homeless people who have no place, other than the streets, to live. They have come up with scheme after scheme to criminalize poverty and chase the homeless from one vacant lot to another. Building a project such as the Renaissance might get 69 homeless people off the street, but for everyone else, the benefit is minimal.
Opening the Renaissance also creates the illusion that significant progress is being made to end homelessness, while leaving the overwhelming majority of homeless people still on the streets. I was struck by this realization as I attended the grand opening. Hundreds of homeless people were outside on Santa Clara Street, in the cold, while the “dignitaries” and “city leaders” were patting themselves on the back and congratulating each other for a job well done. While awards were handed out under a heated canopy, the homeless simply stood on the other side of the barbed wire, uninvited to the celebration.
I was also unfavorably impressed with the massive video surveillance presence. I counted 40 cameras that could monitor the outside, every entrance and hallway in the complex. The Renaissance reminds me more of a minimum-security prison than a home for traumatized individuals who are trying to overcome their difficult circumstances. These cameras raise significant civil liberties and privacy issues for the residents of this complex.
As the “love fest” among the politicians, developers and the well-connected Fresno elite was taking place, I kept thinking to myself, “Why did they spend $11 million to get a mere 69 people off the streets.” I asked Greg Barfield, the City of Fresno homeless czar, what was next. Because Barfield and other city representatives say that projects like this are their solution to ending homelessness, I expected more of an answer than I got. Both Barfield and a representative from the Fresno Housing Authority told me that they have no future plans to construct housing to help the homeless. Nothing. Zip. Nada.
If none of our government officials, the private sector or social service agencies has figured out a path to provide Fresno’s homeless with more than a handful of places to live, then we need to come up with new and creative ways to deal with this issue. A good start would be to provide the thousands of homeless people on the streets of Fresno with a safe and legal place to live. These facilities would have, at a minimum, drinking water, trash pickup and toilets. They will operate until residents have better housing.
The answer really is permanent, affordable, decent housing for everyone. But, until government officials, the private sector or social service groups can figure out how to make that happen, then safe and legal campgrounds are essential to maintain the dignity of those victimized by the economic recession, with mental health issues or with disabling addictions.
Ideally, civic leaders will figure out a way to save money by putting more homeless people in available housing. If that is not possible, then there are plenty of vacant buildings, bank-owned foreclosed properties and vacant apartments that can be used to house the homeless. We must force the political and economic system to put people’s human needs above the profit motive, by opening up these unused apartments, houses and buildings to those in need. Until that happens, we must demand that safe and legal campgrounds (with basic public services) for all homeless people be established in public and private spaces throughout the city.