Riverbank homeless population a rising concern for city

Reggie Ellis

Visalia City Council holds the second of three study sessions listening to experts in the field of providing services to homelessness

VISALIA – The homeless encampment along the St. John’s River can’t be ignored any longer. It’s a statement everyone in Visalia can agree with but one with far less consensus when it comes to solving the issue.

After detailing the $1.8 million the city spends annually on addressing homelessness at its first study session on the issue, the Visalia City Council reluctantly approved an additional $160,000 at its Nov. 2 meeting to clear debris, trash, and makeshift structures from the south bank of the St. John’s River shortly after its second meeting on homelessness. While the unanimous vote was a step toward addressing the issue, it felt more like taking two steps backward.

Vice mayor Steve Nelsen, who represents the St. John’s Parkway district, said the project needed to happen but unless the city can relocate the homeless living there the city will have to spend more money to clean it up again in the spring. He suggested barricades and caution tape to keep people from moving back in once the clean up is done, similar to what the city did at Oval Park in downtown.

“The excuse is that they are out of sight, but that attitude needs to change and council needs to take a proactive approach,” Nelsen said. “Otherwise, I will advocate for the city to buy the homes along St. John’s because it’s not fair if you live near the St. John’s.”

Councilmember Greg Collins pointed out the county cleaned up the north embankment twice before the encampment moved across the river and within the city limits and now the city is on its second round of clean up. The solution, Collins said, was three words: low barrier shelter.

Councilmember Phil Cox reminded the rest of the dais that just two weeks ago Sgt. Brett Miller told the council that many of the homeless population don’t want help.

“They aren’t going to go to a house. They aren’t going to go to a low barrier shelter. They aren’t going to go anywhere,” Cox said.

Machael Smith disagreed with that assessment. As executive director of the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance, Smith said her organization, in concert with other agencies and nonprofits, has helped 987 people off the streets in the last five years, 94% of which have not returned to homelessness.

“So why aren’t we making a dent in these numbers,” Smith asked rhetorically. “Because more people are becoming homeless every year.”

The number of first-time homeless people in Tulare County was 1,248 in 2017-18 and had nearly doubled to 2,302 last year. Kings and Tulare Counties, Smith said, need 17,000 more affordable housing units to meet the demand for those with extremely low incomes, individuals making $14,000 per year or a family of four making just $26,000 annually.

Councilmember Brian Poochigian noted Tulare County is among the counties with the most affordable housing the state. Smith countered that Tulare County also has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. She said 72% of those households spend more than half of income on housing leaving them one emergency away from being homeless.

“Basically, we are trying to address a systemic issue at the end of the line,” Smith said. “Until we stop it at the front door, we will continue to see these issues.”

In order to find shelter for the unsheltered, Smith said the Alliance established a landlord mitigation fund in 2018 to address concerns of property owners may have renting to someone who is extremely low income, no credit history and past evictions. Landlords who participate in the program agree to provide some units as permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals in exchange for up to $2,000 in lost damages, lost rent, legal fees, etc. In August, the Alliance hired a landlord relationship specialist to connect landlords with board of realtors, apartment association to increase number of units.

Smith was one of three experts in the field of providing services to the city’s homeless population to speak during the city’s second of three study sessions.

Miguel Perez said his employer, the Tulare County Housing Authority, provides up to 100% of rent for Section 8 housing for homeless families when at least one of the members is disabled. People with disabling conditions account for 40% of Visalia’s homeless. Perez admitted it is a difficult population to assist, but Tulare County has still managed to find a homes for 34 of its 59 vouchers.

“[It’s] one of the better performing housing authorities administering this program nationwide,” Perez said. “The biggest issue we have is finding landlords to participate.”

This year, Perez said the housing authority discovered it was more effective to acquire buildings and convert them into transitional and permanent supportive housing rather than building new units. In collaboration with the Homeless Alliance and Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), the housing authority provided a $1.9 million to a nonprofit developer to convert 99 Palms Hotel into permanent supportive housing. He said HHSA would be providing wrap around services to help those at the former hotel with addiction and mental health and the Alliance would coordinate navigation services to help the residents with other resources.

“It’s a very unique project and we are ahead of the curve,” Perez said.

Residents living at 99 Palms will also get house calls from Kaweah Delta doctors through its Street Medicine program. Dr. Omar Guzman established the program in 2019 using resident doctors at the hospital to provide direct care to the homeless at the St. John’s River encampment and the city’s warming center at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Every other week, Guzman, director of the Kaweah Delta’s Undergraduate Medical Education program, and a team of doctors, medical students and phlebotomists go to the St. John’s River to do health screenings, ultrasounds, wound care and provide medication for illnesses ranging from seizures to high blood pressure.

“We know from studies that being an unsheltered homeless, meaning those living at the St. John’s River, versus living in a shelter puts you at 10 times greater mortality risk than the general population,” Guzman said. “If you don’t have a roof over your head there is a 10 times greater risk of dying.”

Councilmember Brian Poochigian asked if providing more services was attracting homeless people from other communities.

“I go to Exeter, Farmersville and Woodlake and don’t see a high number of homeless,” Poochigian said.

Guzman said it is more likely an issue of strength in numbers and a longing for community. He admitted that many of those being treated by the program are addicted to opiates, struggle with mental health and disabilities or chronic illnesses preventing them from staying off the streets. Most of them are unwilling to access services because they are afraid of losing what little they have left.

“This is the only group that has to make a decision to leave all of their belongings on the street to attend a doctor’s appointment,” Guzman said. “Most of us would not do that unless we were super sick.”

Guzman also reminded those in attendance that the issue of homelessness is not a new one. Throughout human civilization there have always been unsheltered residents who do not have the means to find shelter legally. He said churches used to be where people can find shelter and be cared for because their doors were always open but now that responsibility has shifted to the emergency department. He said treating homeless people where they are rather than waiting for them to be brought to the emergency room is not only the right thing to do but also the least expensive thing to do.

“As doctors, we have a duty to provide care to the sick in the population,” Guzman said. “Our job is to keep the population healthy enough for others to provide resources to them in terms of housing, financial aid, food and security.”

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