By John Lindt
VISALIA – A local service club is thinking small when it comes to solutions for homelessness, small homes that is.
The Visalia County Center Rotary Club is promoting a micro-housing project headed up by architect Sharon Sheltzer. “We are proposing a ‘tiny home village’ of 24 units that would be sleeping quarters for homeless people” says Sheltzer.
The units will be clustered on open land with a large tent available for dining, a bathroom and bath-house as well as a kitchen. Sheltzer notes that the project will be categorized as “temporary” hopefully allowing it to move forward in less time than a permanent development.
The location for the proposed micro-housing development would be on open land next to the Congregation B’nai David temple at 1039 S. Chinowth St., which would donate the land for the project. The site is roughly 60 feet wide by 260 feet deep.
“We are working with neighbors to let them know about the plan,” adds Sheltzer.
The project is scheduled for a site-plan review hearing with the city today, July 17 to discuss how codes may be enforced. The organizers are also working with the Tulare/Kings Homeless Alliance, a coalition of homeless housing and service providers, advocates, government representatives and consumers working together to shape regional planning and decision-making. Since its inception in 1999, the Alliance has worked to improve access to housing and to health, education, employment and other supportive services connected to or as part of varied levels of homeless support in the bi-county region.
The development will be the first ‘tiny home’ project in Visalia. Homes generally under 400 square feet are considered tiny homes and may be a way to deliver affordable housing if codes and regulations can accommodate the non-traditional development.
Tiny Tales of Success
Several cities have pioneered connecting the tiny-home trend with their homeless problem including Yuba County, as seen in this photo. Local officials got to hear about Yuba’s tiny home project first-hand when two speakers from the county presented a summary of the project during the Tulare County Homeless Summit in October 2017. Yuba County Administrator Robert Bendorf sat down with county leaders of more than 25 organizations to discuss cleaning up homeless encampments throughout the city of Marysville and the surrounding unincorporated areas. After getting all of the stakeholder agencies on the same page, Bendorf said the idea was to create a supervised camp that would provide housing, assistance and services to those living on the streets, river banks, and on private property.
Instead of a tent city, Bendorf said the county purchased 20 Tuff Sheds and worked with Habitat for Humanity to convert them into emergency housing for the homeless by adding insulation, beds and a patch of artificial turf as a front yard. As emergency housing, Bendorf said the county was able to avoid the normal costs associated with permanent housing by limiting the number of days a person can live there to 21, with options to extend that to a maximum of 84 days throughout the complex.
“We wanted something more permanent, an actual roof over their head, so we decided to do the sheds,” Bendorf told those at the summit. “It’s a little unconventional and it might not work for you but it is one of many solutions to consider.”
They built the sheds into a small community on county-owned property next to a rescue mission on 14th Street and dubbed the project “14 Forward.” The rescue mission provided meals, shower facilities and bathrooms next door while the County provided on-site case management. While living at 14 Forward, Bendorf said county staff works with individuals to get a photo ID through the DMV, obtain a Social Security Card, fill out applications for transitional housing and employment training. The county also provides transportation to and from rental walk throughs, job interviews and doctors appointments.
“We decided to stop talking about it and start doing something about it,” Bendorf said. “The longer you talk about it the worse the problem gets.”
Chayla Galicia, Homeless Project Manager for Yuba County Health and Human Services Agency, said what made 14 Forward unique was that it increased the amount of available housing, provided on-site services, allowed residents to have pets and provided services throughout the day while still providing the residents with some privacy.
“Some of the barriers to shelters are that they couldn’t bring pets and that they had strict rules,” Galicia said.
Since opening the facility in 2016, 14Forward has housed 213 people, 53 of which moved on to permanent housing and obtained employment.
Lack of Housing Is Big
Shelter is the number one problem in addressing homelessness. In its annual Point In Time Survey, the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance reported there are at least 819 people experiencing homelessness in Tulare County, an 11% increase from last year and a 52% increase since 2013. Nearly three-quarters of homeless people do not have consistent access to shelter. More than half of them are living on the streets of Visalia.
People sleeping in unsheltered situations has risen 263% since 2013 and increased 20% from the previous year. In 2018, the Kings/Tulare region had the 4th highest rate (67%) of unsheltered homelessness in the United States within areas categorized as “Other Largely Urban.” Despite the number of home-less dramatically increasing, the total number of homeless beds has remained virtually unchanged from 2013 (795 in 2019 vs. 790 in 2013).
The number one reason for homelessness in Tulare County is unemployment (18%), followed by eviction (18%), arguments with family and friends (12%), substance abuse (9%) and the lack of affordable housing (9%). Nearly half (48%) have been homeless for more than a year.
And it’s not just adults. About 8% of Tulare County’s homeless are under the age of 18.
A number of public meetings have outlined the extent of the problem called an “explosion of homelessness” by some. Visalia police say calls-for-service due to the increase in homeless has gone up 1000% including fielding some 5,000 calls from the public complaining about various homeless impacts.
– John Lindt is the publisher of Sierra2theSea.net, an online newspaper covering California’s Central Valley and Central Coast.
– Reggie Ellis contributed to this article.
-This article was update at 1:07 p.m. PST on July 17, 2019.