Tulare searches for solutions to homelessness, discuss variety of options

City council holds special meeting to discuss a variety of solutions for their local homeless population

TULARE – The Tulare City Council met June 22 to discuss a myriad of solutions to homelessness in the city, with proposals ranging from creating a cooling center just for homeless people to funding a foster program paying residents to take in homeless people off the street.

Most of the ideas on the agenda, and the reason for the special meeting, were outlined by Councilmember Jose Sigala in a May 10 memo. Sigala offered a list of 14 proposals to address homelessness, some of which were reasonable and others which could create a logistical and liability nightmare. The latter was a suggestion by Sigala for the city to pay a monthly stipend to households willing to take in a homeless person off the street. He mentioned a fee as high as $350 per month per home to help the household cover food, rent and other expenses associated with housing a homeless person.

“For $350 per month, you would get a great return,” Sigala said.

Mayor Dennis Mederos didn’t think there would be any return once the city factored in staff time and that the money would have to come from city coffers because there isn’t currently state funding provided for that type of program.

Staff members said running a program of that size would be like running a social services program, similar to ones the county run, such as the foster care system for youth. Traci Myers, Tulare’s community and economic development director, said if a program were to exist, it would likely be run by the county due to the sheer scope. She said the city did not have the staff to track how all of the money at each household was spent, identify potential fraud and then enforce the rules of the program.

“Accountability and reporting would be a nightmare,” Myers said.

Councilmember Patrick Isherwood said he was willing to look into the program but wasn’t sure if it was possible within city ordinance, so the idea for lack of consensus.

There was also no support for Sigala’s suggestion to decriminalize low-level citations and infractions for low-income and homeless residents. Sigala many times a $30 ticket, which many homeless people can’t afford, will snowball into a larger amount and a warrant. That could result in someone getting arrested for something minor just as they are finding stable housing and getting back on their feet. He said if a homeless person is cited for a minor infraction, the city could dismiss the fee if they agree to seek drug treatment, medical treatment, mental health counseling or apply for a housing voucher.

Police Chief Wes Hensley said this would be tantamount to providing preferential treatment within the law. Mayor Mederos said many homeless people are unwilling to do even the smallest amount of community service for an infraction so expecting them to complete a much more time consuming task of entering a an ongoing program would have little to no effect.

There were a few issues the council agreed were either already being handled or would eventually be addressed by the state. The city did not entertain Sigala’s ideas to provide more funding for the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance’s Point In Time count of the homeless each winter, nor to have a councilmember sit on its board, which oversees the Continuum of Care (CoC) for Tulare and Kings counties.

Machael Smith, former director of the Homeless Alliance, said the city can certainly be a member of the organization but the board of directors for the nonprofit are elected by the membership, not appointed by leadership. She did say city officials were more than welcome to participate in the Alliance’s rating and ranking of requests for proposals and notices of funding availability. Those decisions ultimately decide which projects are funding with CoC money throughout Tulare and Kings counties.

“Getting on the board sounds noble but not practical,” Mederos said.

“I’ve asked the council to lower the triggering temperature. Right now it is 105 degrees,” Sigala said. “We have a lot of days in a row that are over 100. Any day over 102 could trigger the cooling center.”

Hunt said the city could set a lower temperature to open a cooling center if it was run by the city, as the county’s cooling centers are set to open when the forecast calls for at least 105 degrees.

Staff, and thereby the council, was receptive to Sigala’s suggestion of looking into purchasing a hotel/motel. He said the city of Visalia has partnered with the county, and two outside contractors to renovate Sequoia Village on Mooney and the county has converted 99 Palms just north of Tulare into Tagus Gardens, also a housing project for the homeless.

“Tulare does not have one,” Sigala said. “Let’s work with partners and the council on record to say this is an idea we would like to pursue.”

Myers replied, “Staff is more than willing to vent that.”

The council did reach consensus to keep its Strategic Action Committee on homelessness, albeit with more direction and focus, and hear Lighthouse Rescue Mission’s new proposal to build housing for the homeless before hearing any other proposals for half a million dollars in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding.

Sigala mentioned there were new partners, such as UpHoldings, an affordable homebuilder which has partnered with the county to develop the Sequoia Village project, who have expressed interest in the $250,000 over two years the council designated for a homeless shelter. There are not currently any proposals to build a low-barrier shelter in Tulare, but Lighthouse did apply for the $500,000 in CDBG funding to build modular units on an empty lot in town. Most of council and staff agreed they needed to hear Lighthouse’s proposal first because they were initially the project that was going to be funded until their location for a large, tent-style low-barrier shelter fell through due to public outcry. Lighthouse instead decided to try and build lots of tiny houses throughout the city following the city’s discussion on multifamily housing being one of the zones designated for low-barrier shelters last year.

“Previous council gave a commitment to Lighthouse based on what was presented,” Mederos said. “I’m not prepared to go in another direction before I see what they have.”

The last item on Sigala’s list was calling on Supervisor Pete Vander Poel, who represents district two including Tulare, to establish an anti-poverty campaign in Tulare County. The councilman did not provide more specifics on the issue.

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