post courtesy of The Fresno Bee’s Andrea Castillo
Between 2009 and 2016, homelessness in Fresno decreased overall by 48 percent. But from last year to this year, it increased by 10 percent, for a count of 1,622 people.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin said many believe the increase in homelessness this year is a result of Proposition 47 keeping low-level criminal offenders out of jails.
Among what’s needed, Swearengin said: more immediate housing for those who are chronically homeless, regular outreach and more funding. Swearengin said the plan will end chronic homelessness for veterans by the end of this year, for the most vulnerable by 2017, and for the less vulnerable by 2018.
Chronic homelessness refers to people who have been on the streets for a year or more and have multiple conditions – behavioral, physical or mental health – that make it difficult to get off the streets.
Around one-third of the chronically homeless in Fresno are “most vulnerable,” meaning they need permanent rental assistance and social services to keep from being homeless. The remaining people, on average, will need housing assistance and support for two years before they become fully independent.
“Our intent is to make sure we’re preventing homelessness in the first place,” Swearengin said.
Swearengin released the 2016 Point-in-Time homeless count during a news conference at Chukchansi Park downtown. The count takes place each year over three days and tallies the number of visibly homeless people on city streets and in rural areas.
This year, about three-fours of counted homeless people didn’t have shelter. Similar disparities are seen in homeless counts throughout the years, backing up Swearengin’s plan to increase immediate housing. The number of beds for the homeless – shelter, transitional and permanent – increased by 29 percent since 2009, to 1,706.
Chronic homelessness numbers have fluctuated: decreased by half from 2012 to 2013, increased by more than 150 people the next year, down again by almost 250 in 2015, and up again by almost 200 people this year. Overall, chronic homelessness has been cut in half since 2009, on par with the overall decrease.
Rhodes: Count misses many homeless
Mike Rhodes, former editor of the Community Alliance newspaper, recently published a book about homelessness in Fresno, called “Dispatches from the War Zone.” Rhodes said he doesn’t believe homelessness has decreased as much as city leaders claim. He said it’s impossible to get an accurate count using Point-in-Time methodology. Plus, he said, homeless people in Fresno have been forced out to remote areas by city laws targeting camps and become much harder to find.
The trick is in how homeless people are identified, Rhodes said. Those living in their cars, garages or backyards aren’t as visible as those on the street.
“That doesn’t mean the homelessness has gone away,” he said.
Rhodes said some people have certainly been helped by the city’s efforts, but he isn’t convinced chronic homelessness will end in three years. That, he said, would require more affordable housing and enough money to invest in mental health services, addiction and other issues that contribute to homelessness.
“All they can do is create the illusion that they are effectively dealing with homelessness.”
Homelessness goal is ‘functional zero’
Swearengin said the goal is to achieve “functional zero,” which means there will still be homeless people in Fresno but the resources will exist to quickly house them.
Doing nothing about homelessness costs public systems millions each year for services including emergency room visits, ambulances and 911 calls, Swearengin said. Today in Fresno, she said, $14.8 million between all agencies involved is used to address chronic homelessness.
- Stands for Homeless Engagement Resource Outreach
- City-funded outreach workers
- Soon will begin walking the streets wearing bright orange T-shirts
Fresno needs another $1.5 million a year, Swearengin said. That’s including $1 million for around 50 more permanent supportive housing units for people with physical or mental disabilities and $500,000 for rapid rehousing, which helps homeless people quickly find temporary housing on their path to self-sufficiency. She said the permanent housing funding is likely available through federal resources, while the other $500,000 will be raised locally.
“That assumes every service provider that’s contributing today actually continues at the same service level,” Swearengin said. “So, we can’t see any decreases.”
The City Council approved an additional $500,000 from the city’s general fund to pay for a team of outreach workers, who within a few weeks will begin walking the streets wearing bright orange T-shirts that say HERO Team. HERO stands for Homeless Engagement Resource Outreach.
“We know we need repeated contact with folks that are on the streets today to develop the relationship needed, assess their conditions and ultimately match them with resources,” Swearengin said. “We’ve certainly heard an outcry from the public – they want more being done to address homelessness.”