Tulare pens letter to state asking for help with homeless along 99

Ben Irwin

City sends letter to governor, Caltrans citing public safety concern over trash and debris from encampments

TULARE – Mayor Jose Sigala recently sent a letter to the governor and Caltrans requesting help addressing the homeless encampments along State Route 99, specifically with trash and debris stemming from the encampments.

Sigala said in the last three months he has seen a rise in the number of homeless and homeless encampments in Tulare—particularly along the top of the ridgeways of 99. He said one of the issues that prompted the letter was a public safety concern for drivers on the freeway.

“There’s concerns about the things that they bring, their goods that fall down into the freeway,” Sigala said, “also the blight they create along the freeway where it meets with businesses.”

The letter identifies Highway 99 as one of the most dangerous highways in the country, and cites an Oct. 19 incident where debris was thrown from an encampment onto the freeway, causing a significant traffic backup. Sigala said when driving through Tulare on 99, there is an expectation motorists are going to be as safe as possible.

“You’re not necessarily thinking about a suitcase, a shopping cart or something tumbling down from the side of the freeway that would cause an accident,” Sigala said. “First and foremost, is the safety of not only the public but the individuals that are up there. Who’s to say someone gets up at night and stumbles down the side of the freeway and falls onto the freeway?”

The embankment near The Habit Burger Grill on E Prosperity Avenue is flush with the adjacent properties, an area Sigala said has become a hotspot of complaints from residents and business owners who can see the tarps of the homeless encampments.

“It just creates a whole blight situation,” Sigala said. “That’s been the more obvious one, because you drive and you see it from the way the embankment hits the street.”

Sigala said the state jurisdiction of Highway 99 limits Tulare’s ability to deal with the issue.

“Obviously, if we could, we would. But it’s a jurisdictional issue, it’s state property,” Sigala said. “And so we’re asking the governor, and particularly the Caltrans director of this area to really take a look at that.”

Sigala said he hopes at a minimum Caltrans can sweep up all the debris and trash, addressing some of the public safety and blight concerns. He said a netting to prevent debris from falling into the freeway is also a possibility.

“Obviously, we would like to have people removed from there,” Sigala said, “but given what’s happening, given the governor’s hesitancy to do that—that’s a high expectation.”

An Aug. 27 report from Tulare/Kings Homeless Alliance—a coalition of homeless housing and service providers, advocates, government representatives and consumers working to shape regional planning and decision making—counted 203 people experiencing homelessness in the city of Tulare, with 190 sleeping in an unsheltered location. Only 13 people slept in an emergency shelter, and zero slept in transitional housing.

Sigala said he understands the hardships COVID-19 has caused and the quandary that poses with displacing people. He said the city has made investments in the past year-and-a-half toward addressing the homeless issue.

“When I first became mayor two years ago, I hosted a forum where we had 300 people show up, and they we’re really focused on the homeless issue,” Sigala said. “Out of that came a homeless task force that I created and a number of individuals joined on. We started setting aside some funding to try and find a shelter.”

Sigala said over the last year a citizens committee has been working to develop criteria and a location for an emergency shelter. He said they have also received a commitment from Tulare County to provide mental health services and we’re set to open mid-March at the Human Health Center in Tulare, but the pandemic has halted progress.

Mayor Sigala was re-elected in the 2020 General Election, Patrick Isherwood was elected to District 5’s city council seat, and District 3’s seat is still too close to call between Steve Harrell and Carlton Jones.

“We’re hoping with the new council that we can really push forward and address some of these issues,” Sigala said.

Sigala hopes to see action on 99 happen promptly, and said he plans to follow up the letter with calls to the state shortly after Thanksgiving.

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