The warming center shelters local homeless from freezing winter nights
VISALIA – The warming center providing shelter from freezing winter nights for the homeless is now homeless itself.
The Visalia City Council awarded $118,275 to an organization called Visalia Homeless Center at its Oct. 4 meeting to operate a warming center for the homeless during the winter months from December through February. Unfortunately, Visalia Homeless Center (VHC) CEO Rev. Suzy Ward said she can’t sign the agreement because the warming center doesn’t currently have a place to shelter the homeless from freezing overnight temperatures. VHC had identified a vacant building at 744 E. Douglas as a potential site for this year’s warming center but it was not going to be ready in time.
“The building is in transition [between tenants] and isn’t available in a timely manner,” Ward said.
Ward, who is the reverend at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Visalia, is now asking the public for its help in finding a new home to house the homeless on cold nights. She said the space needs to be at least 5,000 square feet, located in Visalia city limits, have basic utilities, and have either multiple male and female bathrooms or larger bathrooms with multiple stalls. Any one with information on a potential site, should call Ward at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 559-627-8265, or email her at [email protected].
“The perception, like anything else that comes with people who are unhoused, is that there will be problems,” Ward said. “But we have had few problems with those staying overnight at the church.”
VHC did not operate a warming center last winter due to COVID-19 safety guidelines against congregate facilities. Instead, Ward and her partners used its annual funding from the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance to purchase hotel vouchers for 35 people at the Lamp Liter Inn from January through March of this year.
Prior to 2020, Ward used the parish hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Visalia to shelter between 80 and 90 homeless people each night the temperature is forecasted to drop below 35 degrees. In 2019, the last time Visalia had a warming center, about two-thirds of those seeking shelter at the church were men, but several were mothers with children. One of the reasons that people preferred the warming center over other overnight shelters in town was because they did not split up couples, children and parents, or pets from pet owners. Ward said her staff also connected people with resources and provided a much needed resource themselves. She said three case workers with Family Services of Tulare County volunteered their time to ensure one person was there every other Friday to assist people dealing with issues of sexual assault, drug addiction, and mental health issues. She also trained her staff to enter those coming out of the cold into the Homeless Information System. She said only about half of those came to the warming center were already in the system.
Ward said she is not continuing to operate the warming center at the church is because it has been hard on the neighborhood. The last time the church’s temporary use permit for the warming center came before the Visalia Planning Commission for approval, those living near the church shared they did not feel safe going out to their car at night while others complained of litter, feces and urine on their lawns and property.
“It’s hard on the neighborhood and I am trying to be a good neighbor,” Ward said.
The contentious planning committee meetings are what prompted Ward to help found the nonprofit VHC four years ago, in part to find a new home for the warming center, but also to welcome new partners into the fold of caring for the homeless. The Visalia Homeless Center (VHC) is a partnership between St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and The Warehouse ministry. St. Paul’s Rev. Suzy Ward is CEO of VHC, while the CFO is St. Paul’s deacon, Teri Van Huss, and the project manager if Christy Bergen with The Warehouse Visalia.
The VHC’s primary funding for the past two-years has been Homeless Emergency Assistance Program (HEAP) state grant funds administered by the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance. The VHC has all the necessary supplies and equipment already on hand to quickly open a new warming center. The organization has a long-standing history of support from various partner organizations, such as, the Homeless Alliance and Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency. VHC also has a large number of returning volunteers to assist with the operation of a warming center. VHC will be responsible for participating in the Coordinated Entry System and entering client data into the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The seasonal emergency shelter has also been the first point of interaction for many people experiencing homelessness, in beginning the process for housing placement through the Coordinated Entry System.
City staff referred to VHC as a model for combining volunteers with paid staff and engaging individuals with complex issues to becoming receptive to continuing for first contact with services such as housing assistance, mental health counseling, case management, addiction counseling, job training and accessing health care and social security benefits.
The city’s $118,000 award provides 14 weeks of funding for a project manager, an overnight coordinator, four staff members, a security firm as well as rent, utilities and storage. The funding comes out of the city’s Permanent Local Housing Allocation (PHLA) funds. The program was created by Senate Bill 2 passed in 2017 to address the shortage of affordable housing in California. The Building Homes and Jobs Act established a $75 recording fee on all real estate documents. Seventy percent of the funding goes to cities and 30% goes to the state. VHC has another $6,500 in funding from other sources for hygiene products and to help with the cost of food.