By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Nearly everyone in Visalia agrees that homelessness is one of, if not the most pressing public concern. And for the Visalia City Council, that’s where the agreement ends.
At its May 7 meeting, the City Council debated the idea of forming its own task force on homelessness to augment the work being done at the county level. The council stopped short of forming its own task force but did agree to have a study session on homelessness in July. Councilmember Greg Collins asked that the issue be placed on a future agenda item, sooner rather than later.
“The problem is not getting better, it’s getting worse and people expect change and solutions and I think we have an opportunity to take advantage of that,” Collins urged.
Collins said he would like to form a Visalia task force to begin receiving public input and then report back to the city council with new ideas to reduce homelessness.
“This issue has been on everyone’s mind,” Collins said. “All of the members [of the council] have received phone calls. I think it’s important that the community come together to come up with solutions that are outside the box.”
Councilmember Phil Cox said he didn’t support creating a Visalia task force because Visalia was already part of the Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness. Created in 2016, the task force is comprised of representative from each city as well as a cross section of industry experts from mental health, transit, business, non-profits, and churches. Cox said the county is the lead agency on homelessness because they get the majority of funding to deal with homelessness, in terms of substance abuse and mental health issues, through Proposition 63. Known as the Mental Health Services Act, the 1% tax on California’s wealthiest residents has generated more than $15 billion since voters approved it in 2004.
“They have the task and funding to address these issues,” Cox said.
Collins countered that while the county wide task force has its merits, there is no reason for the city to wait around for things to play out when the city is dealing with the effects every day.
“We’re working on three years and it’s just getting worse,” Collins said. “I think the community is getting tired of waiting.”
Mayor Bob Link agreed. As a member of the countywide task force, Link said he understood the need to address homelessness at that level, but said Visalia residents should have the opportunity to share ideas with city staff, who in turn could report back to the council with concrete solutions from those discussions.
“It’s the citizens of Visalia who are suffering from this county issue,” Link said. “The community needs to know that we aren’t just sitting here thinking about it, that we are doing things.”
One of those things was providing money for a warming center over the winter months. Earlier at the May 7 meeting, Rev. Suzy Ward gave the council a recap of the winter warming center that she coordinated at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located at 120 N. Hall St. in Visalia.
The warming center opened the day after Christmas and ran every night through the end of February. Ward said Feb. 11 was the busiest night with more than 125 people crowding into the temporary shelter. She said one of the reasons that people preferred the warming center over other overnight shelters in town was because they did not split up couples, children and parents, or pets from pet owners. One man came in with a pet rabbit he carried in a small cage.
“Rarely did we have animal barking in the night,” Ward said. “We had more noise from snoring than anything else.”
Ward said about three-quarters were male, half were over the age of 50, and about two-thirds slept at the shelter on multiple nights. In addition to providing shelter from the cold, Ward said her staff also connected people with resources and provided a much needed resource themselves. She said thee case workers with Family Services of Tulare County volunteered their time to ensure one person was there every other Friday to assist people dealing issues of sexual assault, drug addiction, and mental health issues. She also trained her staff to enter those coming out of the cold into the Homeless Information System. She said only about half of those came to the warming center were already in the system.
“You saw a need in our community and you stepped up to fill that need,” said City Councilmember Brian Poochigian. “This was needed in our city.”
Sharon Seltzer, who lives near St. Paul’s on Main Street, asked if having security guards made a huge difference. Ward responded that most disputes were handled by her staff and only three people in 65 nights had to be thrown out of the shelter.
“This was a tremendous service to our community,” Mayor Bob Link said.
More HOPE Needed
Later in the meeting, Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar presented the Police Department’s annual report to the city council. Salazar reported that almost all crime is down from 2017 to 2018 by 7%, which the exception of calls for homelessness which has gone up 1,000% in the last decade. Calls to the department’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team accounted for 2,400 calls from officers for assistance and more than 5,000 calls from the public about issues of homelessness. He said about 10 individuals generate the majority of calls for homelessness, and having the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team has helped to identify who those 10 are and what their needs are. Salazar said most of those 10 individuals are struggling with substance abuse.
“Homelessness is our biggest challenge,” Salazar said.
Last year, HOPE Officers began working side-by-side with a Mental Health Clinician as a field response team to engage individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. These individuals may be eligible for mental health services, alcohol and drug programs, or veteran and self-sufficiency services. Salazar went on to say that he is working on reorganizing his department in order to expand the HOPE Team and the partnership with Mental Health Services to provide counselors to respond with HOPE officers.
The Police Department’s job became more complicated last fall. In September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecuting someone for sleeping in a public place is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of that person’s 8th Amendment rights, unless the enforcing agency provides a low-barrier shelter for homeless people to sleep and they refuse to seek shelter there.
“I don’t envy the VPD, with the challenges you are faced with out of Sacramento,” Nelsen said.
Former Visalia City Councilmember and current County Supervisor Amy Shuklian said there are things in motion that would make it more appropriate to push off any decisions until September. Shuklian reminded the council that Tulare County’s Task Force on Homelessnesss, which includes Visalia Mayor Bob Link, has hired a consultant who will report back to the task force sometime in September. Shuklian also said Gov. Gavin Newsom is making more money available to address homelessness but only for projects that are regional and collaborative.
Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen pointed out that the city already spends 3% of its budget on the homeless, who represent about 1% of its population. He said the city spends $6.5 million each year on addressing homelessness by providing job training, housing, shelter, and other resources.
“We can’t do this in a jam session,” Nelsen said. “We need staff to come back with defined ideas that we can put our hands around.”
Nelsen motioned to deny Collins’ request to have a discussion on homelessness placed on a agenda in the near future. Cox seconded the motion and it passed 3-2.
“To move forward on the discussion now is premature,” Nelsen said.
After some confusion about what exactly the motion was, Cox made a new motion to bring the issue back before the council in October. That motion died for lack of a second. Poochigian made a third motion to bring back the item in July, when staff could put something together to address the issue of people legally being allowed to sleep in public parks. It was seconded by Nelsen and passed 4-1, which Cox voting No.
“This is a national issue,” Poochigian said. “We all need to work together to solve this problem.”