County signs lease agreement for Tulare emergency homeless shelter

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors signs a lease agreement, allows the city of Tulare to move forward with the emergency homeless shelter

VISALIA – After many months of planning and waiting on a lease agreement from the county, the city of Tulare is finally able to go full speed ahead to complete the emergency homeless shelter as soon as possible.

On Nov. 29, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved the ground lease agreement with the city of Tulare for a 2.32 acre portion of land on the county’s Hillman Campus. The land will be used to build an emergency homeless shelter with a 200 to 400 bed capacity. The city of Tulare has been waiting for the county’s signature for several months and were able to sign their portion of the lease at the Nov. 22 city council meeting. With approval from both parties, the city is now able to hit the ground running with plans to get the shelter up and running within 10 to 18 months. 

“From a county perspective, this is an exciting sort of joint venture because it’s county land, but it’s all going to be city development,” Noah J. Whitaker, homeless initiatives program coordinator with Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency (HHSA) said. “Where they’re developing [the shelter] is completely surrounded by the supportive services that our county agencies offer. So this is a great location for access to services.”

The lease between the city and the county is for Dec. 1 2022 to Nov. 30, 2023 with three five year options to renew, totalling 25 years. Included in the lease is a 12 month review after operation commence, so the county has the opportunity to address any unanticipated issues. 

“The city has been great throughout these negotiations,” Brooke Sisk general services agency director. “So I don’t anticipate that there won’t be any issues that they won’t willingly address before we get to that point, but we wanted to have that in place just to make sure that we were all able to come back to the table and revisit some things.”

The Hillman campus is located on Bardsley Ave. in Tulare. The city of Tulare worked hard to determine a location for the homeless shelter that was not within an eight mile radius of a residential area. That really only left one general area which was near the city’s industrial area. The Hillman campus met requirements including adequate land area and infrastructure – water, sewer, electric – and it is within proximity to services needed by homeless individuals like public transportation and a grocery store. 

The city wouldn’t lose any property or hotel tax revenue and is being leased at no cost to the city. In return for the lease, the city will keep 25% of the shelter for use by the county. The services on the property Whitaker mentioned for use by the homeless population include, HHSA public health lab, HHSA Hillman health center, HHSA Hillman annex,  woman, children and infant supplemental nutrition (WIC) Family Health Care Network and Kingsview Substance Abuse Program. Additionally at the board of supervisors meeting on the 29, Sisk with HHSA said they are looking to build a new behavioral health unit on the Hillman campus soon as well. 

The vision for the structure of the shelter would be a 20,000 square foot primary shelter structure complete with an eight foot screened perimeter fencing. There would be an extension of water, sewer and electric into the site and have restroom and shower trailers, including ADA compliant facilities. Individuals would have access to drive and parking areas, exterior lighting, dog kennels, storage containers and eventually a basketball court, garden and storm water retention. Additional module classrooms, food pantry, laundry and housing units will be available as well. Modular office buildings will also be placed on site. 

As several cities in the county begin their own journey on helping individuals suffering from homelessness, Tulare is taking a unique approach. The emergency homeless shelter will offer a three tiered system for those who choose to stay: entry level, participation level and recovery level. By implementing the tiered systems, individuals will be given the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. 

“I like that flexible model, because it encourages people [staying in the shelter], but it also meets them where they want to be,” Whitaker said.

There are different perks that come with each level as well as a different level of participation on the part of the individual. The entry level will allow those who want to stay and have basic needs met, like food and shelter. Mondell said they will have to follow basic rules as well like no fighting, no drugs and will have limited storage space.  As for those who want to join offered programming or help out and have more involvement within the shelter, they will be given the opportunity to take advantage of other offered incentives. Some of those incentives include more storage space or even more private accommodation, rather than just a cot in a room with 200 others. 

The city is still working through the general plan for the shelter and many things are not set in stone. There will be security on the campus and staff of the nearby county businesses were assured of their safety at the meeting. 

“As we work through the planning with the city, and really develop what the safety protocols will look like, I look forward to ensuring that employees are taken into account and that we have buy-in and that we’re keeping our employees safe as well,” Donna Ortiz, HHSA agency director said.

Now that the lease has been signed, the city can move forward with its design plans. Since the city just gained control of the property, they are a little behind on design. At the Nov. 1 city council meeting, the council approved an evaporative heating and cooling system for the shelter rather than an air conditioning unit. This decision saved the city a little over $1 million dollars a year in energy costs. The city expects the project to be completed  within 10 to 18 months.

As an interim plan, the city has purchased a parcel of land to create a temporary encampment. The city’s main objective is to get those who are experiencing homelessness away from the railroad tracks and into a safer space. As the emergency homeless shelter has some time to go before it is completed, individuals will be able to take advantage of the temporary encampment after the start of the new year. 

“Every time I hear [a frost advisory alert], I just immediately think of our brothers, sisters, our children, moms and dads that are sleeping in the dirt, and experiencing that frost without the warmth of a home,” Whitaker said. “And it just makes me even more excited about the developments like the signing of this lease, because that gives them closer to being warm at night.”

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