Community weighs in on low barrier shelter

Meeting turns raucous as community members voiced their frustration over the low barrier homeless shelter’s location

VISALIA – On Thursday, July 15, representatives held a forum at the Visalia Convention Center to provide information about the Visalia Low-Barrier Navigation Center and to take questions and comments from community members.

Representatives included Tom Collishaw, president and CEO of Self-Help Enterprises; Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen; Phil Hornburg, director of TC Hope; and Mary-Alice Escarsega-Fechner, executive director of Community Services Employment Training (CSET). On the other side of the dais, nearly all of the more than 200 seats were full of community members looking to get answers, voice complaints or show support for the homeless center.

The event began peacefully but intensified later as the floor was opened for public comment. Cheers and shouts from the crowd devolved into heated exchanges between attendees and the panel.

Tom Collishaw moderated while the other three representatives took turns outlining the history of the low-barrier development and the reasons for selecting the controversial location at the southwest corner of Glendale Street and Court Street.

Residents diverged from the panelists over the shelter’s location. Residents disapprove that it’s in the middle of proposed housing developments, adjacent from Riverway Sports Park, and less than a mile from Riverway Elementary School. But the site was chosen because, the panelists said, no other site in Visalia could be found that met the criteria.

Mayor Nelsen began by laying out the timeline of events that precipitated the development of the low-barrier shelter. A printout of that timeline was provided. Nelsen stated that numerous meetings and workshops were held by the city leading up to the final approval. He also cited two major legal developments that limit the city’s control in this matter: the 9th Circuit Court ruling in Martin v. City of Boise and “by right” zoning laws coming out of Sacramento.

“Municipalities are not able to criminalize the act of sitting, sleeping, or lying on public property if there’s no low-barrier navigation center,” Nelsen said of the Martin v. Boise ruling. In Visalia homeless individuals are allowed to set up tents at 7 p.m. in public parks if they remove them by 6 a.m., Nelsen said. The navigation center is a piece of the puzzle that will allow the city to start getting people off the streets and out of parks and into housing, he said.

Nelsen went on to say that “by right” developments have “effectively tied the hands of local municipalities.”

The state considers by right developments to be supportive housing, such as low-barrier navigation centers, in areas zoned for multifamily and mixed-use developments. However, it does not allow local governments to require conditional use permits before approval. State law also stipulates a time frame in which cities must review and act upon applications for low-barrier navigation center developments. Because the proposed low barrier shelter meets all requirements mandated by the state, the city has little control in its location and approval.

Nelsen also informed attendees that the nearly $5 million dollars the city awarded for the center do not come from the city’s general fund but from federal and state money for housing.

Nelsen then laid out his experience with the homelessness issue, as well as cleanup efforts. “I live two and a half blocks from the island at the river, which has over a hundred unhoused individuals,” Nelsen said. He added that he’s experienced unhoused individuals going through his neighborhood for 20 years and pointed out that the island is approximately four blocks from an elementary school. “They’ve had no issues with the unhoused people living at the island,” Nelsen said.

“So let’s be honest,” Nelsen said. “Hopefully, the consensus and mindset tonight is we want to help those that want to be helped. But being brutally honest, that attitude is always not in my neighborhood. It is in my neighborhood, and I am for the navigation center.”

Venting frustration

Following the presentations, the floor was opened for public questions and comments. There were some in support and many frustrated with the development team’s choice of location and lack of communication with the community.

One commenter stated a number of examples in which homeless individuals had committed crimes or engaged in activities that made her feel unsafe while her children were present.

“I think it would just be fair to say that many of us are sympathetic to the situation that these individuals are in but are concerned about safety, especially when children are involved, especially in places very close to where my children congregate most days of the week,” she said.

The commenter also asked about the “low-barrier” designation and whether there would be behavioral consequences for individuals who were not showing improvement in drug or alcohol use or mental health.

“I think for us, we’re looking at up to 180 days, and the intention is that for us to wrap around all of those services as much as we can around them,” Escarsega-Fechner said. “We certainly can’t predict if they’re going to get well or if they’re not going to get well, but for us, it’s really one of those things we’ll have to look at as we begin operations, but the intention is to get them connected to as many resources and get them to a place that’s going to be a better place for them to be.”

The same commenter expressed concern about homeless individuals congregating around the area in hopes of getting into the facility.

Escarsega-Fechner said that an app would be created so that people can know whether beds are available. The center will also coordinate with the Visalia Police Department and other safety-net services.

“So people will not just show up; they will need to be connected through someone,” Escarsega-Fechner said, to which an attendee in the crowd yelled, “That’s not an answer!” And a nearby individual said, “That’s exactly what I was going to say.”

The crowd applauded following a commentator’s critique. “It seems, though, there was some kind of disconnect with communication on this, and many people had no idea about this until recently. I think in the future, with projects of this magnitude, that there needs to be better communication with the community.”

Other speakers expressed similar frustrations with not being aware of the project. Some explained that when they bought their home, they had no idea that a homeless center would be built in their neighborhood. One man said he had worked hard to get his family out of bad neighborhoods where crime, drugs and homelessness were a problem, and now there will be a shelter that attracts the same element behind his home that is presently being built.

As the meeting ran long, about 30 minutes over with public comments, people began filtering out. But the panelists remained and listened to all the comments and responded to questions. One frustrated person could be heard threatening legal action as she exited.

No final word was given as to whether the organizations behind the project were considering relocating based on public opinion. It seemed, though, the representatives were firm in their decision to keep the center in its proposed location.

Hopeful outlook

But not all were opposed. Adrianne Hillman, founder and CEO of Salt + Light Works, spoke as well, acknowledging the controversy of the location but giving her full support for the project. Salt + Light recently received approval from the county to build a housing community for the homeless in Goshen.

Hillman praised the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which is the referral system the navigation center would use to accept and admit residents. According to the Kings Tulare Homeless Alliance, “HMIS is a web-based software application that homeless assistance providers use to coordinate care, manage their operations, and better serve their clients.”

Hillman, provided additional information, referencing HMIS data. Ninety percent of people experiencing homelessness in Tulare County are from Tulare County or have next of kin in Tulare County, Hillman said. She stated that Tulare County also has more unsheltered people per capita than anywhere else in California, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hillman, who works on the front lines in solving homelessness in Tulare County, stated that critics of the homelessness problem cannot expect unhoused individuals to get a job and get better if they do not have a place to sleep, bathe or get the help they need.

“I know that the reason this has snowballed such in Tulare County is that we are not stopping the bleeding,” Hillman said. “We cannot get people out of the cycle of homelessness without a bed to sleep in and a place to get settled to get them into a job.” Hillman also pointed out that drug abuse is often a result of trauma and that individuals need healing.

While Hillman spoke, some from the audience interrupted and tried to hurry her. But when she finished, many in the audience applauded Hillman as well.

TC Hope for the future

Phil Hornburg of TC Hope gave a brief history of the formation of TC Hope. It was a response to the growing homelessness problem in Visalia and a desire to preserve the city they love.

“There’s a point-in-time study that was shared and that basically spelled out how many homeless people were here,” Hornburg said. “And the fact is that Tulare County leads the nation in unhoused homeless people.”

TC Hope brought this information to the city, which prompted action from the city. TC Hope then proposed the plan for the low-barrier navigation center, inspired by 40 Prado, a similar center in San Luis Obispo, to CSET. CSET took on the project, funds were raised by locals, and they began looking for a location.

“We began searching for property,” Hornburg said. “We’ve been doing that since 2019. It’s very, very difficult. I know that you all say not around me. I don’t want it any place near me.” Then, referencing a map in the back of the room, Hornburg said, “There is no place in this city, and we’ve looked. I mean, believe me, we have looked to beat the band to find a place that we could put this place that meets all the requirements that you guys want to have. Unfortunately, it’s not there.”

Mary Alice Escarsega-Fechner then presented information about what the navigation center is and is not. She addressed concerns including that the facility will not knowingly house sex offenders, the site will have a 24/7 staff and security cameras, and the center will provide on-site services. These include mental health, behavioral health, employment, food, transportation, and housing services, among others. Escarsega-Fechner also mentioned establishing a neighborhood council to maintain ongoing communication between neighborhood residents and center staff.

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