Crisis Of Homelessness And Affordable Housing In Fresno; Transitioning From The Streets To Shelter
Reggie Bess has been building his coin collection for the past 30 years.
“And so this is my penny collection, this is what I'm working on today,” he says unfolding a cardboard panel with rows of coins.
When he lost his home two years ago, he parted with a lot of other things but his coin collection? It mattered too much.
“That there is 1884,” he says pointing to a penny in his collection.
But now he doesn’t have to drag it from place to place. He’s relieved to have a motel room to himself. He just moved into the Travel Inn off Parkway Drive.
“It's been a struggle. It's really good to be in a place where there's running water and light and air conditioning,” he says.
Before he received a room, he was living in a tent off Highway 99.
“If you lived in the dirt for any period of time, this is a Godsend, this is a blessing and I know that,” Bess says.
An outreach team from the Poverello House contacted him about getting a room about a month before the move happened. It was all part of the city’s Project Offramp initiative, prioritizing the relocation of unhoused populations from city freeways.
When I spoke with Bess, he had been in his room for two weeks and was already making progress. He had obtained a cell phone and registered for school online, all things that he says having a room has allowed him to do.
“It was so good to have a bed. I mean, I slept the first three days all day practically, you know. That was really a good feeling and I'm starting to feel like myself again,” he says.
But luck has eluded a young woman sitting a mile away under a tree in Roeding Park. She’s 27 and goes by the name of Kay. She clutches her cell phone and says she’s been calling different agencies, trying to find shelter space for the past 8 months. It’s difficult, she says, to watch the full motels on Parkway Drive.
“It's hard to sit back and watch people daily go in and out of somewhere that I've tried, not just me, but a lot of other people have tried really hard to get into,” she says.
Kay has been on the streets for a year since losing her job during the pandemic. Her partner’s incarceration and the death of her newborn daughter pushed her into homelessness.
“And I feel like I’m just continuously put on hold,” she says.
Kay says it’s especially challenging being a single woman and trying to survive. She just wants a chance to get back on her feet.
“Either their housing locations are already full, I barely missed the count that they had available like they only allowed so many per entry or whatever,” she says.
H. Spees, director of Fresno’s Housing and Homeless Initiatives says the city has been rotating people in and out of about 1,450 beds since the spring. Availability is changing daily as people move in and out of the system. But where are they moving to? Spees points to the affordable housing crisis.
“There's zero occupancy rate for studio apartments right now,” he says. And those who receive housing vouchers have nowhere to use them.
“One of the critical first rungs of the ladder, housing ladder, are studio apartments. Well, when you have zero percent occupancy rate, that's a big deal. That's a crisis,” he says.
People who receive a room have a three-month guideline to make their next move to permanent housing. But Spees stresses, it’s a guideline and not a deadline.
“There are resources that people are being offered in these shelters for navigation and case management. And so, is there a pressure on people to take the next step? Absolutely. Is there a commitment to kick people out at the end of three months? Absolutely not,” Spees says.
Marianne Lenderman is one of those people. She’s been at her motel since January this year.
“I'll be 65 in November,” she says.
Today, she’s meeting her friend for a ride just outside Roeding Park. They’re going to look for apartments. She just received her housing voucher and has put in her name at a complex, but it has a long waiting list.
“They haven't told me I had to leave yet, so I'm just going to stay here as long as I can, unless I come up with an apartment, then I'll leave,” she says.
Spees says the city is making key investments to bring more motel spaces online. But it takes time. For now, the city will wind down its Project Offramp priority on freeways, which he says has relocated 423 people off of the freeways into housing.
“We're now shifting, in the process and by the end of the summer, we'll be shifting Project Offramp freeways to Project Offramp neighborhoods, giving people the same type of off-ramp out of homelessness and into a new future that every person on the street deserves,” he says.
On the affordable housing front, councilmember Tyler Maxwell says the city just added $2.5 million into a new local housing trust fund and has applied for matching dollars from the state.
“I would expect to hear back from the state sometime in mid-fall of this year as to whether we were approved or denied the matching funds,” he says.
The money is entirely focused on affordable housing development.
“We essentially said we want to use these monies for the creation of new housing stock, affordable housing stock. Because I want to make things very clear that here in the city of Fresno, we're not necessarily facing a housing shortage, it's an affordable housing shortage,” Maxwell says.
If the state grants the money, the city will have $5 million to use on development projects. The city could use its $2.5 million by then, but if granted, the rest won’t likely be available until the next calendar year.
Maxwell says the city has also established an off-site mitigation fund. Several million dollars have been set aside to encourage affordable housing development especially downtown.
“Trying to get more people to build affordable housing has been an issue because the offsite improvements are so costly, especially for the urban core because there's already existing infrastructure - and a lot of time you have to remove that infrastructure,” he says.
That might include pipes, gutters, curbs and sidewalks. And city plans like these can take years, leaving people like Kay with no place to live.
“I want to be able to comfortably bathe and use the restroom. I want to be able to get my life on track again,” Kay says.
In the meantime, she’s been sleeping in a friend’s car. She says she refuses to give up finding a solution.