By Nancy Vigran
Reporting for the Sun-Gazette
TULARE – Homelessness has become a focal point for police in Tulare, and now they are looking to borrow some of Visalia’s tactics on how to deal with it.
After mayor Jose Sigala was appointed at the end of last year, he made it clear that homelessness is something he wants to deal with. Early this year, the Tulare City Council decided on the formation of a Homeless Ad Hoc Committee to look into local homelessness issues and how to deal with them.
Councilmember Terry Sayre was appointed to chair of the committee of 14 concerned citizens, including Sigala. Since their appointments they have met on a routine basis. With another 20 or so volunteers, subcommittees have now been formed to dissect problems and find potential solutions.
One of those potential solutions is the possibility of a Tulare Homeless Outreach & Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) team modeled, in part, after Visalia’s. Visalia’s HOPE team was developed as a pilot project in 2016, then in May of 2017, it became a permanent part of the City’s police force.
The mission of Visalia’s HOPE team “is to reduce homelessness in the City of Visalia by working with stakeholders to find long-term, supportive housing for homeless individuals through outreach and community education, and also to proactively address the public safety concerns and impacts related to homelessness.”
Tulare would like to dedicated police officers to work with Tulare County Mental Health officials in aiding those suffering from homelessness, and address the underlying reasons they became homeless in the first place. Sigala has since tasked the committee and Tulare’s Police Chief, Wes Hensley, to look into the possibility.
“It’s pairing up [a police officer] with a mental health worker who can perform an assessment on the spot,” Sigala said. “It is very important for myself and Councilwoman Sayre for there to be a mental health component.”
Visalia Chief of Police Jason Salazar told The Sun-Gazette in 2018 that calls for his department regarding homelessness have gone up 900 percent between 2007 and 2017. Most of those calls were either related to a mental illness or severe substance abuse.
“Mental health has become a much bigger issue than it was years ago. We are seeing it a lot more. Some of it is diagnosed and sometimes it is substance abuse so those things cross lines a lot, and they both have the same kind of impact,” Salazar said.
For Visalia’s Chief of Police the correlation was strong enough to establish the HOPE team in 2017. The team began with two full-time officers and then expanded to four when they proved to be effective at helping the mentally ill of the homeless population in Visalia.
In just one year the HOPE team has been considered a success. Officers on the team have helped those who are struggling with mental illness, and living on the street, by referring them to the Projects for Assistance in transition from Homelessness (PATH) program and providing assistance to those who are chronically homeless through Kings View Corporation. They also help the homeless through jobs programs, shelter referrals, and even spiritual referrals with the Visalia Rescue Mission.
“I think our HOPE team is a big tool, because they become more and more familiar with people and more and more familiar with the resources,” Salazar said.
Sayre told the Sun-Gazette that she has met with Tim Lutz, director of the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, who told her that Visalia is having good results with its HOPE team. He shared concerns and an interest in Tulare’s situation pointing to financing as a major hurdle. Another benefit of partnering with the County, could be a better possibility of receiving grant funds from the State to aide in its possible projects.
Funding is another subcommittee. It’s a multifaceted situation, Sayre said. There are actually nine subcommittees in all. One, working with the police department, and another of Sayre’s working with the County with regard to mental health and addiction. The others involve looking into what nonprofits may be able to help, housing, a possible shelter, transitional support, other regional support, concerns of the business community, and how homelessness affects children and schools.
“I’m very pleased with the number of citizens who are working to assist in this,” Sayre said.
Sigala added, he would like to see about the possibility of the County opening a Mental Health office in Tulare similar to those in Visalia and Porterville.
The ad hoc committee is a temporary one looking into the possibilities of helping and dealing with those in the community who are homeless. Once the fact finding missions are done and reported to Council, it will be up to City Council to make decisions and move forward.
“Then it’s up to the community to step up,” Sayre said.
Further information from the committee and police department regarding a HOPE team will be brought back in a future Council meeting, most likely on an agenda in July, Sigala said.