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Fresno Mayor's New Homeless Initiative Is A Change Of Tone To Homeless Advocates

Jul 3, 2018

About a quarter of the nation’s homeless population live in California with most of them concentrated in the state’s larger cities, including Fresno. Governor Brown has responded in his latest budget by including $500 million in grants for cities to address homelessness. Fresno Mayor Lee Brand went to Sacramento to lobby in support of this funding. Despite years of work on the problem, the city’s homeless population is still significant. Some have said in recent times that Fresno has spent too much time and efforts criminalizing homelessness, referencing the so-called camping ban. But at his State of the City address last month, Mayor Brand announced a new initiative that may strike a balance between cleaning up streets and offering assistance that homeless advocates agree with.

One person who might have taken advantage of this new project is Tammy Guzman.

After a bad divorce, she was homeless on and off for six years. She spent time on the streets in California, then tried living in Oregon. She eventually returned to Fresno to be close to family.

“I have grandchildren here and a son here, and just decided to come back and give Fresno a shot,” says Guzman. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I think I’ve made a mistake.’”

Guzman, still homeless, couldn’t find a place to live, and when she tried to go to the Poverello House, she says she ended up getting kicked out. The Poverello House, however, says that she chose to leave.

“There was no housing for me, I mean I was literally on the street, and I was coming apart at the seams,” Guzman says.

Now Guzman lives at the Dakota EcoGarden, which is a house revamped for people who were homeless. When she was on the streets, Guzman says she needed a safe place where she had some space and could start to get back on her feet. Dakota EcoGarden cofounder Gerry Bill says that providing this kind of support  is where the city has failed.

Gerry Bill and Nancy Waidtlow co-founded the Dakota EcoGarden five years ago. They say their approach has helped some find housing and become self-dependent.
Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio

“The other thing that’s a disgrace in this city is there’s no real emergency housing. Places that pass for emergency housing here are just, they have a lot of restrictions,” says Bill. “They’re not low barrier and they’re not necessarily available to everybody at all times.”

This idea of accessible and immediate, interim housing is part of what Fresno Mayor Lee Brand is trying to coordinate with his new initiative, Street 2 Home Fresno County.

Brand says this will be a new collaborative between the city, county, and independent organizations, co-chaired by himself and County Supervisor Sal Quintero.

“We want to find a shelter, a triage, we're not quite certain, we've done a lot of research, so we can do our due diligence, what is best for Fresno,” Brand says.

Brand hopes to model the project off of successful programs in other cities. The plan is to address the spectrum of needs for people who are homeless. This would include temporary housing and an opportunity for people to look at their options and determine what resources they can use.

Brand says this will be a community-wide project, and incorporate existing nonprofits like Poverello House and Fresno Rescue Mission. Some have criticized these programs, saying they have too many rules that limit their accessibility. Brand calls them, “high threshold,” and says they are important. But, he says Street 2 Home will try to fill gaps in homeless assistance.

“This goal is to get people out within 90 to 120 days, and they have a low threshold,” says Brand. “You can come in with a problem like drugs, alcohol, but you’ve got so much time, you’ve got to wean yourself off, and if you’re successful, then on your way out you always have intensive case management.”

In a city where advocates and officials have often been at odds, the new policy is a change of tone. Paul Jackson, with the Fresno Homeless Advocates, says that the collaboration between city and county is definitely a welcome component.

“It's going to take more than simply the city themselves providing their services," says Jackson. "I'm saying this because it truly is a community problem and it has to be solved by the community.”

Jackson says the group is encouraged by Brand’s honesty about his own daughter’s struggle with homelessness. But, at the same time, they are being cautious. Jackson says that the City of Fresno has not made it easy to be homeless. He says the city’s camping ban has criminalized those who are homeless, more than assisted them.

“Perhaps we've reached the point where we've realized we've swung so far in that one direction, it's kind of pointless. Because if you're doing all this with the anti-camping ordinance, you're still not getting the results, and very few have accepted services through that ordinance, something more is needed,” says Jackson. “That’s obvious, I would hope.”

Jackson says that it’s hard to find a solution because homelessness is such a multifaceted problem, a point Mayor Brand and many other homeless advocates agree with. But Jackson says the Fresno Homeless Advocates are optimistic. In their words, they’re looking forward to when Fresno is a more “homeful” place.

Meanwhile, city officials say they hope to get the Street 2 Home initiative running and assisting people by the end of the year.

This story has been updated.