Visalia City Council turns down tent city

Reggie Ellis

Council votes 3-2 to deny Councilmember Greg Collins’ request to discuss putting a homeless campground on city-owned land

VISALIA – In the last few weeks the Visalia City Council has discussed three different models to approaching homelessness. Two will be run by nonprofits and were praised by the entire council, while one would be managed by the city, and only had the support of one member of the council.

At its March 15 meeting, Councilmember Greg Collins said he, like the other councilmembers, was in support of the request for proposals sent out last month to nonprofit organizations to design, build and operate a low-barrier shelter, also called a navigation center by late 2022 or early 2023. He also described the county’s conversion of the Sequoia Lodge to homeless housing as “working effectively” but neither was enough, soon enough to address the city’s problems now.

“There is still a significant portion of the homeless population around the community along the railroad right-of-way, parks, along Highway 198, the underpasses and the frontage roads,” Collins said. “In addition to a navigation center, I think we need to parallel that effort.”

Collins suggested setting up a temporary campground on city-owned property for the homeless. He said the project wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive and only require some fencing, porta potties, wash stations and tents. He said the project would need to have strict rules, managed by an on-site employee and overseen by the city.

“We’ve been at this eight years and not much has happened,” Collins said. “I think a campground can solve some of the problems.”

Councilmember Brian Poochigian disagreed with the idea the city should manage, but was willing to vote in favor of Collins request to place a discussion on a future agenda.

Mayor Steve Nelsen and councilmember Brett Taylor disagreed, saying the project would be too expensive, especially after the city has already set aside millions for a low barrier shelter.

“We are on a path and we’ve got some funding for a navigation center,” Nelsen said. “And we can put together a good list of campgrounds that have failed.”

Taking down tents

Nelsen proceeded to provide several examples of failed tent cities. Throughout the last two decades, the city of Fresno has cleaned out “tent cities” scattered across downtown, several times over. Mayor Jerry Dyer recently announced Project Offramp, another initiative to clean up encampments and place those living there into local shelters.

“You can’t force a homeless person to use a campground,” Nelsen said. “In my mind, I go back to internment camps and that bothers me.”

Nelsen also mentioned Echo Park in Los Angeles, a situation that more closely mirrored encampments at the St. John’s River than a city-sanctioned campground. The picturesque park with a manmade lake and a view of the L.A. skyline saw a few tents pop up on the bank of the lake but, during the pandemic, more homeless began setting up camp, now about 174 tents and makeshift structures surround the park, according to a March 13 article in the L.A. Times. But the city never officially allowed an encampment at the park while the police department was forced to adopt a hands-off approach except for reports of violence. The Times reported 21 homeless people at the park had been arrested for assault, with 14 of the victims being other homeless people. Another 13 assaults at the park were committed by people living outside the park.

But most of these were spontaneous settlements that did not have the backing of a city and other nonprofit partners.

“We all came up with reasons not to do it and I didn’t say a campground not managed,” Collins said. “The cities you spoke of were not managed. It was a free for all.”

The last city-sanctioned tent city in Fresno was the Village of Hope. The city partnered with the Poverello House in 2004 to replace an encampment it dismantled on an adjacent junkyard the year prior, according to the Fresno shelter. Three years later it was expanded and called the Community of Hope and tents were upgraded to sheds converted into “tiny homes.” While in the Village there are is three simple rules, “take care of yourself, take care of others, and take care of this place.” The residents provide their own security and clean-up crew. Clients are not allowed to possess alcohol or drugs while living in the Village. The client services coordinator, who oversees the Village, provides the occupants access to education, life-skill training, substance abuse counseling and mental health referrals. The shelter provided by Poverello House is the bridge between homelessness and housing that our clients need to be successful in securing permanent housing. Just last November, Poverello House upgraded the sheds to pallet shelters, similar to backyard he/she sheds, which are more comfortable than the “Tuff Shed” models.

“It can get very expensive and they don’t tend to work long term,” Visalia deputy city manager Leslie Caviglia said.

The pitch for tents

The most successful tent city was in Modesto, about two hours north of Tulare County. Modesto’s Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES) housed 400 people in 300 tents beneath the city’s 9th Street Bridge as a short-term measure until the city found better housing options. The residents enjoyed the unregulated, free form of the community and city officials, as well as those who toured the campground from other cities, said it reduced the number of homeless wandering the streets, drug use among the homeless and crimes against the homeless. Modesto deputy city manager Caluha Barnes said a few even formed alcoholics and narcotics anonymous support groups to prepare for their transition into a more stable life.

“Most of the people there had a positive experience at MOES,” Barnes said. “When it was time to close it down, a lot of homeless individuals talked about the community they created there.”

MOES wasn’t without its struggles. Barnes said it took a partnership between Stanislaus County, the city of Modesto, the Salvation Army and the area’s regional housing authority to not only fund, but manage the encampment from the time it opened in March 2019 until it closed in November 2019. She said the joint powers authority collectively spent millions during the eight-month experiment on private security, temporary fencing, porta potties, wash stations, dumpsters and a host of social services.

“This was very expensive,” Barnes said.

There were occasional fights and a tent was accidentally set on fire, but officials say those were rare and minimal for a space of 500 people living in close quarters. The city shut down the tent city in November 2019, just a few months after opening it, because they found more permanent living situations for all of the 500 people living there. Barnes said the city was able to identify and prepare 336 beds across three different shelters while people temporarily lived at MOES.

“I think it was worth it,” Barnes said. “Calls for service went down, emergency calls went down and vagrancy went down. This model is beneficial for a community under pressure.”

Vice Mayor Phil Cox asked Police Chief Jason Salazar what he thought of the idea to have a tent city. Salazar said a tent city wouldn’t be any better than what was happening at the St. John’s River throughout last year or what happens at parks throughout the city every night. He also said if the campground is poorely managed, it could sour the public on better projects that are building momentum, such as the Salt+Light village and a navigation center recently proposed by the city.

“With campgrounds there tends to be issues with crime,” Salazar said. “The navigation center is better. Supportive housing is better.”

“What he said,” Cox said in agreement before motioning to deny Collins’ request. Taylor seconded the motion and it passed 3-2, with Collins and Poochigian voting against the denial.

“When people ask me why we didn’t do anything [on the homeless issue], I’m going to say it was because we didn’t have the guts to do anything,” Collins said.

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