When people think of homelessness, they often think of big cities like Fresno or Bakersfield. But in the mountains of Madera County it's a lingering problem. And as the short-term rental market grows, some fear the housing shortage in the communities just outside Yosemite will only get worse.
Serenity Village is a seven-unit affordable apartment complex in Oakhurst targeted at helping homeless people get back on their feet.
“Everything is furnished when they move in,” says Jody Ketcheside, she oversees a number of government run homeless facilities in Madera and Fresno counties, including Serenity Village. "There’s a microwave, there’s a dining table, couches, a bed, nightstand.”
Ketcheside says every week her team has to turn away homeless people, due to a program requirement that states a person must be homeless for a year and have a disability.
“The case manager for this particular program is seeing more people that haven’t been on the streets longer than a year,” says Ketcheside. “That’s somebody new then from when we counted in 2016. She has to tell them what nobody ever wants to tell anyone. They haven’t been homeless long enough.”
She blames the lack of affordable housing and jobs in the region. When her team can’t help they often point homeless people to Matt Mellon with Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church in Oakhurst.
Mellon runs a ministry that employs homeless people for $10 an hour, for up to 12 hours a week. He says homeless people are attracted to Oakhurst because of the ease of life here.
“We hear of people who have been on the street down in Bakersfield or Fresno and they come here because they feel like they don’t have to worry as much about getting in fights or having somebody attack them in the middle of the night,” says Mellon. “The drawback is that we have fewer resources to help.”
The people the church hires for the Jubilee Ministry answer calls, clean the church and keep the acreage around the church fire-ready. Mellon says he is beginning to see families become affected by the lack of affordable housing. He says one family lost their home when the owner sold it and it was converted it into a short-term rental.
“They were evicted and now they have nowhere to go,” says Mellon. “They were living in a tent trailer for a while, now they have to move off that property. They have a little girl who is six years old, she’s in first grade right now. They’re trying to [figure out] how do I be homeless with a first grader.”
Mellon’s in a bind himself. He can’t find a rental in Oakhurst, so he commutes from Fresno. Justin Bales just began his first week back at the Jubilee Ministry. He moved back to Oakhurst after spending time in jail and a period of being homeless in Bakersfield.
“This is like a little slice of heaven, I’ll be honest to you,” says Bales. “I’ve been all around California – Sacramento, LA, Fresno. In Bakersfield I was in the mission and it was as ghetto as can be. People shooting up drugs right outside the gate. You don’t see that right here.”
When Bales isn’t couch surfing, he’s living on the streets. He’s looking for a more permanent job and even though work is scarce, he says he wanted to move home near family. He says the community needs more services for the homeless population, such as a shelter.
“You get out on the streets and you’re like okay even if I’m not a drug user you end up using drugs because you’re going to be cold at night, but if you’re using drugs you’re going to be warm at night,” says Bales. “I really wish Madera County would open up some kind of shelter for people that tried.”
So is the homeless problem getting worse because of the short-term rentals? It's hard to get a definitive answer, but there is a long-term rental shortage in the area. Everyone I spoke with says they’ve noticed new homeless faces in the area, but the actual number hasn’t officially grown. In 2016, 43 homeless people were counted in the Oakhurst area, but that number dropped to around 35 in this year’s count. Officials say the number is low because there weren’t many volunteers this year for the 2017 count.
Still Tom Nicolulis with Manna House – a food pantry, free thrift shop and job training facility in Oakhurst – doesn’t think the homeless problem is large enough in the area for a shelter. Even though his ministry served over 35,000 families last year, he doesn’t think rental-issues are creating widespread homelessness.
“I’m not going to be ignorant to the fact that it could generate some homelessness because I’ve already seen it happen,” Nicolulis says. “As long as we have humanity on earth we are going to have a homeless population. Every town across the nation has a homeless population.”
Whether or not the homeless situation in the region is growing, life is still not easy for people on the streets. For example, people like Michael Clay. We met at the New Community Unitarian Methodist Church of Oakhurst for a dinner serving the homeless population.
Clay isn’t sure if the homeless population is growing in the area, but he says that in his seven months of being homeless, this time around, he’s noticed new homeless people in the area. He sleeps in a graveyard to hide from homeless people he think will harm him.
“I’m basically now running around with two pairs of clothes and a tarp and blanket,” says Clay. “I’m mostly frustrated because I do have a disability and the means to pay for an apartment, but I’m being harried all up and down Highway 41 by other homeless people and they keep moving in from different areas.”
Clay is on two waitlists for affordable apartments in Oakhurst, but he says he isn’t banking on a unit becoming available anytime soon.