By Bob McCloskey
On April 28, the Fresno City Council held a workshop titled “Homeless and Housing Strategy” as part of a “special” meeting. The City released the workshop documents just 24 hours before the meeting began, leaving a short period for the public to comment. Indeed, no comments from the public were taken at the meeting.
Although the City has been more forthcoming with financial information lately, the appearance of secrecy and backroom decision-making leaves many unanswered questions:
- When and how were the decisions made to allocate millions of dollars of public funds that were reported in the workshop?
- Was there public notice and a public comment period for these decision-making meetings?
- What coordination of efforts and funding was there between the City, Fresno County, the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA)?
- Was there a competitive bidding process for the Project HomeKey–funded projects?
The workshop presentation began with a reiteration of the FMCoC’s old Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness (2006–2016), which includes continuing to provide transitional case management services, rapid re-housing of people when homelessness cannot be prevented, and increasing job skills and employment opportunities. The City claims that, by these tenets in that 10-year period, the City and County achieved a 59.3% reduction in homelessness.
The workshop goes on to put forth the housing continuum strategy—from intake to emergency overnight shelter, to a triage center for 90 days, then to transitional housing for an indefinite period and finally to affordable housing. This strategy was supported by a chart indicating 315 current shelter beds with the addition of 494 new shelter rooms, both overnight and triage (the new motel renovations).
The City is now considering transitional and affordable housing in all forms, including single family and multifamily, single-room occupancy, boarding houses, tiny home villages, mobile home parks and other types of housing. This is progress; however, the workshop also states there is a housing crisis and a lack of inventory of housing stock to serve individuals needing supportive services as well as those capable of independent living.
The next workshop topic was the Project HomeKey update (the state- and federal-funded project to renovate motels for housing in Fresno). Although the numbers fluctuate, the 325 rooms so far renovated serve approximately 400 individuals. The total cost of this project to date is $39.13 million, or about $70,000 per room for acquisition and renovation. There is also a $20,000 per room annual operating cost for maintenance and service, totaling $3.77 million.
The City will continue to invest in low-barrier shelters with 24-hour access. This means no requirements regarding income, sobriety or compliance with mental health treatment; partners, pets and possessions are allowed. Shelter will be provided regardless of sexual orientation, marital status or gender identification.
The City admits that shelter space is limited and will continue to invest in homeless shelter services, including onsite case management and supportive services, with a housing plan for everyone. It will also coordinate services; assist with obtaining documents for income qualifications, reuniting with family, housing searches and workforce development training; and provide transportation for essential services such as employment, healthcare and housing.
This is all progress, however, by the City’s own numbers, 800 shelter beds to serve the needs of more than 4,000 unhoused persons represents just 20% of what is actually needed.
Meanwhile, soon temperatures will surpass 100 degrees. Which brings us to the missing piece in the City’s housing continuum strategy—temporary sanctioned safe encampments around the city, with access to city water, sewer and trash services.
Nowhere are safe encampments mentioned in the workshop. A sanctioned campground offers the privacy that tent dwellers on city streets might prefer over the presumed comfort of an indoor shelter where you have to share space with dozens of other people. Besides, there are no available shelter beds!
An encampment run by a service provider can offer security, toilets, showers, regular meals and some electricity. These providers could work with people to find interim housing. Unfortunately, the only reference to encampments at the workshop was to call for the eventual disbursement of current encampments in so-called priority areas—freeways, schools, parks, neighborhoods and business/commercial areas.
Where else is there? Where exactly are people supposed to go? In the summer heat, safe encampments located on City property with shade are the answer.
The City is replacing the Homeless Task Force with the new Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART). “Homeless engagement” will be led by community-based organizations and supported by code enforcement, sanitation and police. It includes outreach, investigating criminal activity in encampments, responding to reports of public health and safety issues, removing trash and debris from encampments and, in some good news, scheduling delivery of portable restrooms and showers on a rotating basis to encampments beginning in July. It is unclear what “a rotating basis” means.
The strategy also includes a plan for using City-owned property to pilot tiny home villages and similar high-density models of housing, invest in third-party (developers) affordable housing projects, convert motels into permanent housing, and provide deposit assistance for renters and down payment assistance for new homebuyers. It calls for using City-owned properties that are close to public transit, pharmacy services, medical services and grocery stores.
Fiscal 2022 investments for all these programs total $25.22 million. The largest portion of these public dollars will go to private developers for affordable housing projects ($13 million).
Primary prevention of homelessness is a critical first step. Primary prevention includes providing affordable and accessible housing to all.
The record of development of affordable housing in Fresno is dismal. Developers have received low-interest loans (2% with a 50-year mortgage) and other public subsidies.
Recent examples in Fresno include a development of 2,000 apartment units that provided only 68 units for low-income families. Another 1,300-unit development had only built 85 low-income units. The largest low-income project in the past several years was 135 units of low-income senior housing.
Considering that Fresno has a 0.06% vacancy rate for rental housing, expanding affordable housing development is crucial.
In more good news, Gov. Newsom recently proposed another $12 billion in new funding to get more of the unhoused into housing and to “functionally end family homelessness” within five years.
A new state database shows that nearly 200,000 people sought housing services from local officials in 2020. Of that number, 117,000 people are still waiting for housing.
One of the goals of the governor’s proposal is to invest in homeless prevention and rental support. Newsom said the proposal comes with greater accountability and transparency measures to make sure that investments are put toward effective solutions to combat the homeless crisis. The new proposal includes $8.75 billion to expand Project HomeKey and convert existing buildings into 46,000 units of housing.
Although there are some positive developments, following the money is as important as ever because public dollars clearly are getting skimmed off by developers, contractors and service providers while the housing needs of 80% of the unsheltered population in Fresno are not being met.
At a minimum, the City should sanction safe camps now. It’s the right and humane thing to do.
Bob McCloskey is an activist and retired union representative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.