Homeless find new shelter from freezing nights this year

Visalia Planning Commission approves homeless warming center at Evangel Assembly of God at Ben Maddox Way and Walnut Avenue

VISALIA – When Visalia’s first warming center opened in December 2017, residents in the area packed the council chambers and city councilmembers’ inboxes with concerns the homeless were trashing their businesses and homes on the western edge of downtown.

A similar scene happened in 2019 and, after a one-year hiatus in 2020, city staff was planning for another packed house. But when the Visalia Planning Commission took up the temporary conditional use permit for this year’s warming center at a new location across town, the overflow chairs in the hallway outside the chamber were empty, only a handful of residents showed up with concerns and only one person voiced their concern to the commission.

The commission unanimously approved the warming center’s new home at the Evangel Assembly of God, located at the southwest corner of Ben Maddox Way and Walnut Avenue. Chair Marvin Hansen opened the meeting by asking speakers to be courteous, to avoid making similar points for the sake of time and limiting each person to five minutes of public comment, based on prior year meetings, but his instructions were not necessary this year.

“This is the third year for myself and the heightened concern has been lowered each year,” Hansen said.

The one resident to speak during public comment was Pamela Mecum, who lives across the street from the church. Mecum said she was mainly concerned with where the homeless go after they leave in the morning.

“I know there are nice homeless people but there are also some not so nice homeless people,” Mecum said politely.

Rev. Suzy Ward, who has run the warming center since 2017, addressed Mecum’s concerns and stayed after the meeting to discuss issues with residents who didn’t feel comfortable speaking publicly. She noted the permit does not allow loitering and that there is security patrolling the site before, during and after hours. Volunteers also spend time explaining to homeless they are not allowed to stay there and wait for the facility to reopen that night. She also offered her contact information. Ward invited anyone with concerns to call her at 559-627-8265 or email her at [email protected].

“We do all we can to encourage people not to stay in the area,” Ward said. “They know they can’t just come and hang out.”

Several people spoke in favor of the warming center, including Jeff Alexander, who volunteers at center. Alexander said he was once in danger of becoming homeless and asks those living from the center’s new location to “love they neighbor.”

“Some of the homeless have made bad decisions but if I make bad decisions I would still want a little bit of help myself,” Alexander said.

The decision allows the warming center to open immediately but it can only operate on nights where temperatures are forecasted by the National Weather Service to drop to 35 degrees or below and only from 8 p.m. that night until 8 a.m. the following morning.

Ward opened the first warming center for the homeless at her own church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in December 2017. Business and those living around the church, located at 120 N. Hall St., complained the people seeking shelter left trash up and down the street, urinated and defecated on lawns and had frightened some elderly residents getting in and out of their cars at night. Prior to its temporary permit in December 2018, city staffed worked with Ward to refine the conditions of approval to include notifying all surrounding property owners of the church’s intent to operate the center there, capping the number of people at 100, maintaining minimum staffing ratios, requiring security guards to patrol throughout the night and to clean up and remove any trash on and around the site. This reduced the number of calls to the Visalia Police Department by 65%.

“Calls for service in the area were low and about the same as any other neighborhood,” said Officer Tim Haener with the Visalia Police Department’s HOPE Team. “People who go there regulate each other so they don’t ruin it for others.”

The Planning Commission’s approval for the warming center in December 2019 was appealed but ultimately approved following a contentious meeting with local business owners and residents asking for the warming center to locate somewhere else in the city but no code violations were reported at St. Paul’s during the 2018 and 2019 winter operating seasons. The warming center did not operate last year in order to comply with state rules against congregate housing during the pandemic.

Miguel Perez with the Tulare County Housing Authority said the warming center plays a pivotal role in identifying the homeless, how they became homeless, the barriers they face in finding housing and offering the right resources to overcome those obstacles. Based on the most recent Point In Time survey which counts the number of homeless in Tulare County, there are at least 540 people in Visalia experiencing homelessness in Visalia. Of those, 115 have been applied for assistance to find treatment, employment and housing and about 30 have housing vouchers and are waiting for housing to become available.

“These are not just people choosing to be homeless,” Perez said. “The goal is to identify others who want help and get that process started. These are the type of shelters that are needed.”

This year’s warming center permit, which will run through Feb. 28, 2022, added several new conditions such as requiring the security guard company to be bonded for insurance, notifying Visalia Police when the center reaches capacity and limiting the capacity to 60 people per night. The last condition, Ward explained after the meeting, was not due to problems with previous capacity of 100 but because the new facility is about one-third smaller than the original site.

“Over four years having the warming center, the benefit does outweigh the few negative things,” Commissioner Chris Gomez said. “We need this and need it to work well.”

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