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Visalia's Oval Park, Ground Zero For Homelessness

The City of Visalia is known to many as the small town with the good restaurants on the way to the giant sequoias. Its bustling downtown district is home to a thriving music scene and dozens of shops and entertainment venues. But less than a mile to the north, in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Lincoln Oval Park is home to a much different Visalia. It’s ground zero for the city’s homeless population.

“The people in this park are a cesspool, they go around and around and around and around and they never stop, they’re insane,” says Eva, a homeless woman who has called the park next to Highway 63 home for over a year.

This century old public space has dealt with issues of alcohol, drugs and homelessness since its inception, according to Ryan Stillwater.

“I’ve got a stack of old newspapers articles and some old photos and apparently it has always been a real problem,” Stillwater says. “It was referred to a sheep pen a number of times, a trash heap.”

He was hired by the Visalia Rescue Mission two months ago to reinvent the park. His initiative will launch in the coming months as ovalpark.org.

"The people in this park are a cesspool, they go around and around and around and around and they never stop, they're insane," - Eva, an Oval Park Resident

“I got this quote on my board from 1893 where someone had wrote in and said the park project is a good one, everyone should lend a hand and be interested in it,” Stillwater says. “So it’s always had this unfinished project mindset.”

And that is why the city and organizations like the Visalia Rescue Mission have banded together to curb the issue.  A shopping cart ordinance went into effect on October 7. The ordinance forces anyone with a cart outside of the bounds of a shopping center to turn it over to authorities. Come December stores will be fined $50 for every cart found on the streets.

Under the new law, any homeless person found with a cart will be given a bag for their belongings. They’ll also have the option of storing their goods in a trailer at the Visalia Rescue Mission. Since the ordinance went into effect, 30 carts have been confiscated from homeless people and over 100 carts have been corralled city-wide.

Jessica Cavale is the director of development with the mission. She says the condition of Lincoln Oval Park helped spur the community to take action.

“Previous to the shopping cart ordinance it was filled with shopping carts and homeless people, prostitution, the police are always out there, and recently the city council has realized like, hey, we need to enact some step,” Cavale says.

Visalia Mayor Amy Shuklian says that working with non-profit organizations will be key to revitalizing the area. She estimates there about 1,000 homeless people in Visalia.

“It’s gotten to the point where enough is enough,” Shuklian says. “The citizens are noticing it, it’s creeping more into the downtown and outlying areas and so we’re working on something’s that will help manage the situation.”

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Oval Park supporters hope that the park will see better days and an improved look including a new playground and more.

A five tier plan to revitalize the park was submitted to the Visalia City Council earlier this month. The council requested more information about the cost of the plan. The improvements include a new playground, security cameras, a walking path circling the park, an amphitheater, and an iron fence on the busiest side of the park. Restrooms which were once a venue for crime have now been demolished.

Ryan Stillwater’s office is in a building at the park that the rescue mission has remodeled into an event center. The mission leases the building from the city for one dollar a year. Stillwater’s main goal isn’t to serve the homeless population but to slowly change the park’s culture by producing events.

“My main job is not to act as a case manager; it is really to focus on bringing a positive influence to the park and to change its reputation,” Stillwater says. “We’ve considered rebranding it, but we decided we rather redeem Oval Park.”

But the homeless in the city are skeptical about impending changes. Eric got out of prison three months ago and now calls the park home.

“This park changing - you can’t change the park you got to change the people in it,” Eric says.

That’s where Ryan Stillwater comes in.

Shuklian says she hopes to see homelessness reduced "to a manageable way so that it doesn't interfere with the quality of life of all Visalians."

“Fortunately with the restrooms being torn down, the shopping cart ordinance going into effect,” Stillwater says. “What that’s doing – at least my hope – is there is a less of a convenience to be.”

And by doing that, the Rescue Mission hopes that those living on the streets of Visalia will make their way to the mission for food and what they call restoration.

“We don’t hope that they are moved out somewhere else, we hope that they are moved down to the rescue mission where we have a new community center that opened last September,” Cavale says.

Mayor Shuklian says Visalia is at the beginning stages of change, but the rapport they have with the homeless and community organizations is vital.

Shuklian says she hopes to see homelessness reduced “to a manageable way so that it doesn’t interfere with the quality of life of all Visalians.”

She also says the city and Rescue Mission will launch a campaign later this year educating the public on best practices on homelessness.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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