Public Funds to Shelter the Unhoused: Crossroads on the Money Trail

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Tents pitched by the homeless near downtown Fresno. Photo by Peter Maiden

By Bob McCloskey

We, the community, are at a crossroads. Do we accept a continued failed effort to “shelter the homeless”? Do we continue to pour millions of dollars into the current system of temporary housing, law enforcement and code enforcement that perpetuates a cycle of chronic homelessness for some?

Obviously, we need to embrace a different, more cost-effective, long-term solution with a more humane approach to actually housing our unhoused sisters and brothers. We, the people, both unhoused and housed, must decide, organize and fight for the necessary changes that can bring positive results to a seemingly “complicated” issue. 

The voices of the unhoused community must be represented at every step, and immediate needs must be met first. 

We know that the main causes of homelessness are the lack of affordable housing, health problems, employment, poverty, low wages and domestic abuse. The chronic unhoused population, by most estimates, varies from 10% to 25% of the unhoused community.

A small percentage of unhoused people are using the emergency room and acute care services. They are constantly being harassed by police and arrested for petty crimes. The chronically unhoused are circulated through jails and prisons at an enormous cost.

A “Housing First” approach should be put into place, which is mandated by much of the state and federal funding. In a Housing First model, needed services are provided on-site by community-based social service organizations. It is a shift from the past and present, where an individual has to go through a number of transitional steps to qualify for permanent housing.

The Housing First model represents an opportunity to transform the homeless, health and criminal justice systems to increase housing stability, reduce emergency healthcare use and reduce recidivism to jail. It will break the cycle of multiple crisis service use, resulting in public cost offsets.

In some positive news, the City of Fresno has received nearly $35 million from California and the federal government to provide emergency rental assistance grants to improve housing stability in these unprecedented and uncertain economic times. Keeping people from being evicted by landlords and becoming homeless is critical to our entire community.

In another positive development, at the April 8 Fresno City Council meeting, Council President Miguel Arias announced that the City will implement a “community-wide” response to the homeless crisis. He said the City will move forward to purchase restrooms, mobile portable showers and sanitation stations to be moved throughout the city on a rotating basis.

The plan will not be implemented until 2022 and already raises several questions: Why not immediate implementation? What does “a rotating basis” mean for people’s daily needs?

Since the mid-1990s, the unhoused of Fresno have been demanding the provision of sanitation in the encampments as an alternative to eviction, invoking their right to urban infrastructure and their right to the city. The right to the city includes ownership of public space for public use.

Lack of infrastructure such as sanitation has often provided the pretext for evictions. In 2004, Fresno began to implement a policy of bulldozing encampments citing sanitation concerns.

In 2006, the City was bulldozing an encampment on E Street every two weeks. Over a two-year period, the City conducted at least 50 such evictions. People living in encampments and advocates still waged a campaign to demand sanitation infrastructure in the camps.

Sanitation is a central concern to the unhoused. Being excluded from this access leads to exclusion from other norms in our society. The notion that homeless people defecate and urinate in public is often used to support their removal from public space.

If people have no private space to perform bodily functions, they have to use public space because these functions are a part of life. No amount of harassment or criminalization can prevent people from performing necessary bodily functions, and it is incredible that elected officials cannot understand this simple fact.

In 2006, through the efforts of courageous unhoused plaintiff Pam Kincaid, homeless advocate Mike Rhodes and others, hundreds of homeless persons in Fresno filed a class-action lawsuit against the City. They were successfully represented by the ACLU and several other legal firms, resulting in an injunction that forced the City to stop bulldozing the encampments, as well as a $2.35 million settlement for the plaintiffs (Kincaid v. City of Fresno).

But in 2009, the new mayor, Ashley Swearengin, began to shut down the city’s largest encampments, again razing tent cities to the ground. In 2011, a City press release stated that “the cleanup efforts are being conducted to address health and safety concerns.”

The Fresno Bee, to its discredit, wrote in a 2013 editorial that “the City of Fresno is doing the right thing by clearing the multiple homeless encampments. These camps are filthy, unhealthy, dangerous and a blight on surroundings, neighbors and businesses.”

Fresno has a long history of actions and ideas that blame the unhoused for their plight. Of course, the situation could have been easily resolved if the City had provided restrooms, dumpsters and trash service.

The pervasive ideology that still seems to exist in the community of Fresno is that the unhoused bring trash and filth to their encampments. The City Council and Mayor Jerry Dyer tout Project Offramp as saving lives and “cleaning up trash.”

One must ask why people are camping by the freeway. Is it because of recent code enforcement policies, constant harassment and the breaking up of encampments elsewhere?

Why not allow safe camps with sanitation until more permanent housing is set up? Where are people to go when there are no shelter beds available at the end of each day, as admitted by City staffer H. Spees?

The City Council, the mayor and H. Spees are adamant that there will be no effort to create safe camps and better alternatives to living on the street in the short term. The best that the mayor can do is to propose large temporary tent-like buildings that would house open beds, on vacant land near the Rescue Mission.

Council Members Arias, Esmeralda Soria and Nelson Esparza oppose this because it would concentrate on homeless people in a district that is already underprivileged. All five of Fresno’s shelters are in this same district.

In addition, the proposal violates the intent of the Covid emergency funding, which is to create housing or shelters that allow for adequate social distancing.

Andrew Janz, Dyer’s former opponent for the mayor’s office, issued a statement saying that “Jerry’s mega tent city reminds many voters of Trump’s immigration detention centers and does nothing to address how and why people become homeless in the first place.”

Soria said that Dyer’s plan goes against what city, county and state leaders agree is the best practice, that is, to use shelters with no more than 50 beds. Although today’s unhoused persons are economic refugees, creating a large refugee camp is outrageous. There is vacant land owned by the city and county where small safe camps could be established.

Today, the unhoused persons living in tent encampments still don’t have adequate sanitation and are subject to stigma and exclusion as a result, exacerbating their plight as outcasts. It is time to reclaim city spaces and access to city resources. The unhoused people of our community have as much a right to the city and its infrastructure as anyone else does.

The City responded to a California Public Records Act made in February with 1,934 pages in electronic format. That information release does not account for all of the funding the city has received, $57 million, or the amount of funding that Fresno County, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC) have received.

Many of the programs in the report are jointly funded. A full accounting of the $158 million these agencies have received will require further investigation. It is difficult because as the Grand Jury and the California State Auditor concluded, there is no centralized mechanism to track spending.

There is also a lack of transparency about how much is received and spent although the FMCoC claims it is available for questions and public scrutiny.  The FMCoC has received $37.3 million in the past 20 months.

The largest amount of joint funds are still going into emergency overnight shelters ($20.5 million) and transitional supportive housing ($19.5 million). The Home Key project received $45 million, however, this housing is not considered permanent housing by the City at this time.

Accomplishment data, as of Dec. 31, 2020, indicate that with the $40 million in emergency Covid funding, 977 people were provided shelter and services in shelters. In addition, 3,990 people were provided infection control services through 42 hand-washing stations and 39 sanitizing stations.

The data provided by the City is from 2019 through the current year with some projections to 2024. As expected, many of the pages are redundant, including standard contract language with providers multiplied over and over. This is a common tactic when a public agency complies with information requests, loading up with irrelevant information, all to discourage public investigation.

Fresno County has refused to provide any information to the same public records request, claiming that the request is too broad. Some of the funded projects are joint efforts by City of Fresno, Fresno County, FMCoC and FHA dollars. All the funding comes from our tax dollars.

Accomplishment data, as of Dec. 31, 2020, which show how many people have been assisted with what services, are confusing and not current. New accomplishment reports were due in February and more reports are due in June.

The joint city and county Covid-19 response report indicates state and federal funding of $5.1 million. As of Dec. 31, 2020, 446 beds were funded, provided by RH Community Builders, the Poverello House, the Clarion Shelter, the Travelodge Shelter and the Marjoree Mason Center, and 50 beds and trailers provided by Fresno County. 

To fund this program through December 2024, anticipated costs are $13.7 million, and the city has already committed $5 million toward that. Funding for this year includes another 20 beds at the Travel Inn Shelter under the Home Key shelter operation. Funding has gone to RH Community Builders for another 327 beds as part of the six motels already acquired by the city. All rooms are now fully occupied.

The purchase and renovation of the motels was funded by $34 million in state and federal funds.The City is providing another $5 million from the CARES Act to help run the motels for the next five years. The City is negotiating now for the purchase of three more motels.

The recently renovated and new motels are referred to as temporary accommodations by City officials. Because the money from the Home Key program was used to renovate the motels, they must eventually become permanent housing units.

Due to the lack of housing in Fresno, there is currently no limit on how long people can stay in these motels. Tenants have to pay a monthly subsidized rent and sign a 12-month lease.

It is unclear what will happen in two years when these units are to be sold. The concept is that current tenants will be able to buy them. Supportive services are currently being provided at the motels.

Recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the housing vacancy rate in Fresno fell from 6.9% in 2019 to less than 1% in 2020.

A first look at funding sources and recipients shows a few providers receiving big dollars. Although the City’s efforts are heading toward a permanent housing model, the numbers of people currently housed and projected to be housed are still just a fraction of the homeless population.

The City should consider other models and programs that have been used to provide lower-cost housing, such as tiny homes, container homes and less costly ways to build, such as Habitat for Humanity and apprenticeship programs.

Until more permanent housing is built, interim measures must be taken, including the establishment of safe camps, sanitation facilities throughout the city and more funding for low-barrier shelters.

We are at a crossroads. Do we continue to fund the continuum of care service model, where there is an inherent investment in keeping things the same, that is, keeping the shelters and keeping the transitional programs funded? Or do we implement a variety of options to create permanent housing?

Although following the money is critical, of more importance is mobilizing our community to put pressure on our elected officials to use the recent surge in funding to establish more permanent housing.

There are political, ideological and public opinion reasons that make it a challenge to implement Housing First. Some arguments against Housing First: “You need to earn your housing.” “Why should you give someone something for nothing?” “These people are undeserving.”

To counter this, we need to appeal to people through a moral argument, that housing is a fundamental human right. Or, through a financial argument, that millions of our tax dollars are being poured into a never-ending cycle of providing temporary shelter beds, transitional housing and services.

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Bob McCloskey is a retired union representative and a community activist. Contact him at bobmccloskey06@gmail.com.