CalTrans clears highway of homeless in Tulare

About 75 homeless people have nowhere to go as city, partners can’t find a suitable site for a shelter

TULARE – CalTrans began clearing out homeless encampments along Highway 99 through Tulare last Friday, after repeated pleas from the city they were creating a safety hazard to themselves and countless others.

The Tulare City Council first made CalTrans aware of the issue in a Nov. 17, 2020 letter issued by then Mayor Jose Sigala. The letter identified Highway 99 as one of the most dangerous highways in the country, and cited an Oct. 19 incident where debris was thrown from an encampment onto the freeway, caused a significant traffic backup. CalTrans did not respond to the letter and said the issue had not reached the level of a high priority safety hazard.

City manager Rob Hunt said the death of a homeless person living on the freeway embankment last month elevated the priority level for CalTrans which resulted in the enforcement effort to remove people from living in hazardous areas along the state highway. The homeless person was struck and killed by passing cars at 8 p.m. on Feb. 4 when he attempted to cross the freeway near the overpass at Prosperity Avenue.

“This area is obviously a hazard and resulted in a death,” Hunt told the Tulare City Council at a Feb. 24 study session on homelessness.

Police Chief Wes Hensley said his officers, as well as CHP and Tulare Fire Department were on site for security reasons during the removal of the encampments.

“One of [these departments] will make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Hensely said. “Where they go from there may still be an issue.”

Residents hoping to find out the answer to that question were disappointed last Wednesday after Mayor Dennis Mederos made it clear the special meeting was not to decide the location of a homeless shelter.

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City manager Rob Hunt said the death of a homeless person living on the freeway embankment last month elevated the priority level for CalTrans which resulted in the enforcement effort to remove people from living in hazardous areas along the state highway. The homeless person was struck and killed by passing cars at 8 p.m. on Feb. 4 when he attempted to cross the freeway near the overpass at Prosperity Avenue. “This area is obviously a hazard and resulted in a death,” Hunt told the Tulare City Council at a Feb. 24 study session on homelessness. Police Chief Wes Hensley said his officers, as well as CHP and Tulare Fire Department were on site for security reasons during the removal of the encampments. “One of [these departments] will make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Hensely said. “Where they go from there may still be an issue.” Residents hoping to find out the answer to that question were disappointed last Wednesday after Mayor Dennis Mederos made it clear the special meeting was not to decide the location of a homeless shelter.File photo

“We are not picking a site for a shelter,” the mayor said. “That is not what we are here to do.”

Instead, the meeting was about where the city could locally locate a low barrier shelter, meaning there are no barriers to entry. Low barrier shelters are a key piece to not only housing the homeless but keeping them off publicly owned land. Under the 2019 case Martin vs. City of Boise, cities cannot prohibit homeless people from sleeping overnight in public spaces unless they have available beds at a low barrier shelter.

Leading the discussion was deputy city manager Josh McDonnell, who said low barrier shelters are only allowed within the city limits in multi-family residential zones, such as apartments, duplexes and condominiums, and the service commercial zone. In those zones a shelter, not a tent city, can be built without a special permit if it has 12 beds or fewer. Anything more than 12 beds would require a conditional use permit, which must have a public hearing before the city’s planning commission. IN other words, Tulare would need 18, 12-bed facilities scattered throughout the city to house all 205 of the city’s unsheltered population, according to the 2020 point in time survey.

“The city has lands zoned appropriately to accommodate far more than 205 beds,” McDonnell said.

“Let’s be real and honest, that’s not going to happen,” Councilmember Sigala said of having 15 smaller shelter instead of one or two larger facilities. “I thought we should have fewer and bigger shelters.”

Sigala said the city has had the zoning on the books for nearly 10 years and not one of the 12-bed or fewer shelters has been built. The city did have a proposal last summer by Lighthouse Rescue Mission to build a 76-bed shelter. The low-barrier shelter would be an aluminum skeleton covered by a high-tension fabric. The fabric is pre-cut to fit and bolt into the metal frame including skylights for natural light during the day. The shelter materials are manufactured by Sprung Structures based in Alberta, Canada. Sprung Structures have already been used for similar shelter projects in Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, San Diego and several others in the United States and Canada. Clevenger said the Tulare project would be over 3,000 square feet and 38 bunk beds, located at least six feet apart, would provide 76 beds now but possibly much more after the pandemic.

The project was stifled due to its location on the edge of downtown at 444 E. Cross Ave. John Harmon, director of Downtown Association, said locating a shelter in downtown is not a new idea and it still isn’t a good one. He said there are “major concerns” the 200 people located at the site will go out into downtown and the city will get complaints of “defecation and urination.”

Now the city has relocated approximately 75 people living along Highway 99 and there is nowhere for them to go. Sigala suggested siting the shelter near bus routes to provide transportation to services for substance abuse, mental illness and public assistance. He also suggested converting hotels into homeless housing, similar to the 99 Palms south of Tulare and Sequoia Inn in Visalia, both of which received state funding through Project Homekey. The program set aside $600 million to purchase and rehabilitate hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings, and other buildings and convert them into housing for the homeless.

“We, at some point, really need to encourage that,” Sigala said. “Why don’t we have a hotel? Or rent out some of these hotels?”

McDonnell cautioned against changing anything in the zoning ordinance for homeless shelters because it could be perceived by the state as being too restrictive, putting the city’s homeless funding at risk, or cost the city huge consulting fees to ensure the changes did not violate state law.

Mayor Dennis Mederos said the existing city code allowed for smaller facilities to be built by right or a conditional use permit process for larger facilities. Mederos, an attorney by trade, said he agreed with Sigala on the need for larger shelters but did not want to put the city in a situation where they could be sued or lose funding.

“Those people live in [along Highway 99] because it allows them to shelter within the law,” Mederos said. “Tweaking this code is not going to solve that problem tomorrow.”

Sigala ended the conversation by saying, “I concur but I think we are just pushing it down the road.”

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