With new data that suggests Fresno’s homeless population is growing, leading homeless service providers are now admitting that the City of Fresno will not meet its deadline of December 31st to end ‘functional homelessness’ in the city. At the same time, the city is moving ahead with a plan to ban public camping in the city, a move drawing both praise and criticism from those who work with homeless residents. Together, the two issues have renewed the question of how can Fresno solve this decades-old problem once and for all.
According to new numbers released last week, there are now close to 1,300 people living without shelter in the city. The data comes from what’s called a ‘point-in-time’ survey that took place last January. Every year, hundreds of volunteers, homeless advocates, and city employees comb through Fresno looking for as many people as they can find to try and get an accurate count of how many people are living on the street.
Point-in-time survey organizer Doreen Eley with the Fresno Housing Authority says it’s not perfect, but for counting the number of homeless people, but it’s pretty good.
“Point-in-time is a very, very interesting way of counting homeless people. But they are not necessarily the best way because you are only doing it on one night at one particular point in time. So, for example, you could actually be a homeless individual but if spent the night on your brother’s couch on the night we were doing the count we wouldn’t count you,” Eley said during a count in January.
This year’s count found the homeless population in the city increased again for the second year in a row. Increasing to nearly 1,600 in 2017, up from less than 1,300 in 2015.
Ten years ago, the city submitted a decade-long plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on how it intends to reach ‘functional zero’ homelessness, which is defined as someone who is homeless for 30 days or more.
With numbers rising, local leaders admit that they aren’t going to meet that goal, but say the work needs to continue. Shawn Jenkins is the President of Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, which oversees many homeless services and runs the point in time survey.
“(Are we going to get there?) No, we are not. We are going to work hard. We are going to continue to work on it. But we fell short with having the resources to house everybody,” Jenkins says.
He says the city still needs more resources to address the homeless population.
“We have 600 beds out there. We are probably at 98% capacity. So there is turnover there. Those are already filled. So on top of it we have another 1,300 homeless,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins adds that while numbers are up, spreading the homeless around the city has created a perception that there are far more homeless than there actually are, because they are more visible after the city closed encampments downtown.
In response, the Fresno City Council has given initial approval to a controversial new ordinance that would ban camping on public and private land in the city limits. It would let police confront people living in tents and offer the option of going to jail or homeless services, but they could not stay where they are.
The bill’s sponsor, District 2 council member Steve Brandau, says that there are as many as 600 people living a ‘camping lifestyle’ who he claims have become more aggressive and belligerent with residents and businesses.
“Right now, we have 600 people holding a city of a half million people hostage. That is what I am responding to. That is who I want to help,” Brandau said at a press conference announcing his plan.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer endorsed the measure as another tool to disrupt this behavior and try to get homeless people help to get off the streets.
But here is the catch, city officials freely admit they don’t have enough temporary beds or other resources to take care of every homeless person.
But for advocates, the proposed camping ban is just another step in a long parade of indignities they say the city has inflicted on homeless residents.
“Out there in the streets? What it looks like is that people are trying to hinder them so much that they get upset and leave,” says Desiree Martinez who runs Homeless in Fresno, a homeless outreach and advocacy organization.
Martinez herself spent nearly two years homeless after injuring her back and losing her job. Now she works to help other homeless people.
She says the camping ban is just another sign that Fresno simply wants the homeless to go away, a move that stretches all the way back to the city’s destruction of homeless camps beginning in 2006.
“So you keep taking away stuff from people that don’t have anything. Then they are still stuck. You are digging that hole deeper and deeper and deeper. So there is no 15-foot ladder that is going to go down there and get them. We could make them. But I don’t think the city is willing to make them,”
Martinez says she does not see any coherent path forward to address homelessness and get people off the streets other than making life so uncomfortable they leave on their own. Short of that, she says, there is no way the city will address the homeless problem.
However, Shawn Jenkins say the federal government has actually given the city high marks for the work it has done. He says it is unlikely that they will pull any funding from the city as a result of not hitting the ten year goal.
However, at the same time he says federal support to fight homelessness has not increased in years.