Housing is next step to curbing homelessness
Visalia discusses tiny home villages, tent cities, permanent shelter, seatrain communities to address homelessness
By Reggie Ellis
VISALIA – The City of Visalia spends $2 million each year to combat homelessness on every front. Police officers bring mental health clinicians to those living on the streets. Community Development provides storage for those migrating through the city to reclaim items they may have lost in transit. The city’s housing tries to find a place for people to get off the streets at least temporarily. Public Works employs homeless people to clean up blighted areas. A local church offers a warming center during the winter months. Visalia Rescue Mission offers food and shelter to those in need.
The only thing Visalia doesn’t have is a low barrier shelter, a designated encampment or a planned community, but it may be getting some or all of those.
At its Aug. 5 meeting, the Visalia City Council held a work session on any additional steps it could take to reduce homelessness within the city limits. Visalia is home to more than half of Tulare County’s homeless population which it estimates to be between 1,200 and 1,600 people. Nearly three-quarters of homeless people in Tulare County do not have consistent access to shelter as the unsheltered population has risen by 263% since 2013 but the number of available beds has remained unchanged over the same five-year span.
Assistant city manager Leslie Caviglia presented the council with seven options to further address homelessness. The list included additional storage for personal belongings, hiring a grant writer, and a clean up program, but most of the discussion centered around creative housing. Just last month, The Sun-Gazette reported the Visalia County Center Rotary is promoting a micro-housing project featuring 24 units on land next to the Congregation B’nai David temple at 1039 S. Chinowth St.
Annie Silva, who lives on Manor Avenue in Visalia, shared an article she had read in People Magazine regarding one man’s plan to help the homeless in Austin, Texas. Alan Graham, founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, built 51-acre “RV park on steroids” to provide permanent supportive housing to the chronically homeless. Known as Community First! Village, the area includes a collection of 100 RV/mobile homes, 130 micro homes, five laundry/restroom/shower facilities, a bus stop, market, walking trails, and health center all built with $18 million in private donations. Those staying there pay $300 per month in rent but can earn $12 per hour by doing various jobs around the village. For more information visit mlf.org/community-first.
“This one man has pulled this together in Austin,” Silva said. “Visalia has always been such a giving community. There is something we can do here in Visalia.”
Supervisor Amy Shuklian, who serves as chair of Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness, said Arianne Hillman in Tulare is already working on finding land for some type of permanent homeless facility which will be built and operated by a nonprofit called the Salt of Life Foundation.
Caviglia said Green Box Rentals, a cargo container rental, sale, repair and modification business in the Industrial Park, is interested in developing a pilot project to convert seatrains into housing. Caviglia said there are already companies that do this but they will only sell a completed conversion and are unwilling to sell the plans for cities to make their own templates.
Councilmember Phil Cox said he was not in favor of free housing because it doesn’t work. He said Salt Lake City attempted a housing encampment and their population continued to go up.
“We need to find a real solution that will pass the California sniff test. You can’t throw up seatrains and call them apartments,” Cox said.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has been discussed as a possible low barrier shelter, extending its current role of operating a warming center in the winter months. The term low-barrier refers to a shelter that does not have any restrictions to enter. In other words, it does not require those seeking shelter to be sober, participate in a religious program, or separate families based on gender.
Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen asked why the city needed a low barrier shelter if they are seeing results with programs like the police department’s Homeless Outreach and Prevention Enforcement (HOPE) Team that take mental health workers out to the patients instead of relying on someone with a mental health issue to come to them or stay where there are services.
“We can ID what problem but can’t figure out how to deal with the problem?,” Nelsen said. “Only 1% of people want out of the situation. You can’t force them to go to a shelter. We know what root problem is and we don’t address the root problem.”
Whatever the option, most agreed it should not be run by the city because of the regulations and the cost. The City of Visalia already spends about $2 million to reduce homelessness including over $1 million from the General Fund, unrestricted money which primarily funds public safety. That’s in addition to over $4 million being spent on the homeless in Visalia by the County of Tulare, the Tulare-Kings Homeless Alliance, and state funding and grants. In May, the council discussed creating its own task force, in addition to its seat on the Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness, to identify additional options to address the growing issue.
Instead of the city overseeing a committee, longtime Visalia resident Don Hutton suggested a private group of citizens or a collection of nonprofits and service organizations create a new nonprofit funded completely by the private sector. He said the group could create some sort of shelter providing mental health and addiction services where people lived.
“We’ve gotta get moving, even if it’s wrong,” Hutton said. “We need to move forward and get something together.”
Another Visalia resident, William Huff, suggested finding a plot of private property to build a “sustainable village” that would cost a tenth of standard housing. He suggested the private sector operate an “off-grid” facility to avoid paying the high cost of government-funded housing, which is often 30% higher. By offering housing that is not up to government code, Huff said the facility would keep homeless people out of dumpster alcoves, parkways, and back yards.
“There will be some radical things here,” Huff said. “This is a whole new strategy of society. This would be an adventure, and on an adventure you don’t know what will happen. If you don’t go this route, we all do know what’s going to happen.”
Councilmember Greg Collins said he liked the idea of starting a 501c3 nonprofit to oversee one or two campgrounds on the outskirts of town. He said the city could limit the number of tents, provide porta-potties and wash stations, and have the police department patrol the area on a daily basis.
“At least we aren’t chasing these populations all over town,” Collins said. “If we can give them a place to feel safe, and secure rules and order, not solve the problem but help alleviate some of it. I think the community wants us to do something even if it doesn’t necessarily work.”
Councilmember Brian Poochigian said he wanted to make clear that he was not in favor of an encampment or tent city. He said the city should address homelessness by starting with the populations that have the most available resources, such as veterans, rather than trying to find housing and shelter for everyone at once.
“We need to take a bite of the apple,” Poochigian said. “First focus on veterans. Then families, a group by group basis. There is so much support out there to help those individuals.”
As a resident of Visalia for more than 60 years, Tom Peltzer said anyone can understand how the community feels about the tide of homelessness, yet more needs to be done to understand the needs of those that are homeless. Instead of sampling moving homeless people from one area of town to another, Peltzer suggested developing a low barrier shelter, where people would not be turned away for any religious beliefs, gender, or their ability to stay sober.
“They deserve to have a place they know they won’t be kicked out of every time they put a tent up or lay their sleeping bag down,” Peltzer said. “We can’t ignore it anymore and we have to do something about it. There’s plenty of nonprofits and charitable groups to do this.”
Tom Collishaw, president and CEO of Self-Help Enterprises, said the areas having luck with curbing homelessness “own the problem from the top down” by adopting low barrier housing as a model and a mindset. He said the biggest issue facing Visalia is its lack of affordable housing.
“In all honesty, there is no such thing as affordable housing in California, based on the requirements based out of Sacramento,” Nelsen replied. “Really talking about subsidized housing. Average price of housing is around $200,000. And that’s the role the city has to take on … and how do we finance this?”
Collishaw said because half of Tulare County residents live in poverty, half of its residents are already on some type of housing assistance.
“I would say 100% of housing in Visalia is subsidized right now because they get a mortgage interest deduction on their income taxes, even those who own homes who aren’t low income,” Collishaw said. “We subsidize housing in a variety of ways.”
Cox made the motion to have staff bring back detailed information on all seven options for addressing homelessness in Visalia. Poochigian seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.
“We need to quit kicking the can down the road,” Mayor Link said. “I think this community wants us to make this decision right now. At least the beginning of the process to get something on the books.”
Earlier in the meeting the city council checked off the first item on Caviglia’s list by approving the second reading of an amendment to the city’s parks ordinance. The ordinance, which will take effect on Sept. 4, restricts homeless camping in parks to between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. daily in most parks and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., depending on daylight savings, at Lincoln Oval Park, Pappas Park, Provident Skate Park, Recreation Park, Rotary Park and Seven Oaks Park. Camps can be tents but can’t be tarps connected to city facilities such as fences and arbors. Homeless camps can be restricted to certain areas of the park to prevent damage to park amenities. The ordinance would also give the city manager authority to close a park at any time for construction, maintenance, as well as hazards to healthy and public safety. Councilmember Phil Cox asked watering the park would fall under the reasons for closing a park.
Caviglia included a list of 16 things local residents and businesses can do to help reduce homelessness, such as dispelling myths about people who are homeless, volunteering or partnering with existing programs, identify ways to help people in your circles at risk of becoming homeless, rent housing to people experiencing homelessness, donate money or new/used items to groups who help those living on the streets, and support local and state policies that aim to reduce homelessness.
“There’s not one magic program,” Caviglia said. “They all have pros and cons and are expensive. Staff looked at many programs, understand what other cities and counties do, we stand ready to do whatever you need us to do.”