Fresno leaders hear directly from unhoused community in first-ever town hall; barriers to affordable housing highlighted
Rows of metal folding chairs stood stark against an empty parking lot on a Friday afternoon at the Valley Inn motel on Parkway Drive. Clusters of residents huddled in groups, while others sat dispersed.
Three Fresno City Council members took their seats in front of an audience of about 50 people; Miguel Arias, Esmeralda Soria and Luis Chavez. Arias spoke first.
“Our goal here is to listen, listen directly to you. So we hope that you have enough trust in us and confidence that you will speak about what you need, what your experience has been.”
And the audience did share their experiences, but not everyone shared their names. Living in a motel is challenging, one person said, because of the rules and restrictions. “And a lot of us have been out here for 15 years, it's a big change and we're stubborn in our old age but we're here and we're trying.”
Others asked for more services at the motels. “If you ask me, you should have a social worker here at all times,” one woman said.
Another common request was for more services on the streets. “We desperately need showers and places to wash clothing,” another woman said.
Mostly, the residents just wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. “Being homeless is not always a choice, And we're stigmatized and people treat us as if we choose to be homeless, that we made this choice, that our actions put us here and that's not always the case.”
But one complaint that came up repeatedly was the struggle to get housing in order to leave the motels. One man named Jeremy lost his home in a fire a month ago.
“We would literally be sleeping in our cars now if it weren't for this place,” he said.
Before the pandemic, he worked in restaurants, but when the industry suffered during COVID, he had to max out his credit cards. “And then what do we know, a year and a half later, I can't rent a place because of my credit rating,” he said.
Even though he and his wife work full time, he said he feels stuck where he is. Another woman who couldn’t make her car payment said her lowered credit prevented her from renting.
“So I can't get into a home. And CPS doesn't care that there's a housing shortage and I'm going to lose my babies because I can't find a home,” another woman said crying.
An eviction record was a stumbling block for another resident.
“I got an eviction in 94’, never had a problem to get into a place. I bought a house. Now I can't even rent a place? That's ridiculous,” a woman exclaimed.
Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, attended the town hall.
“I think it's the start to a conversation. I hope that the council members and other city leaders that were here that are present, that they really double down on their investment to really mitigate the issues of those that are experiencing chronic homelessness,” he said.
Payne’s non-profit focuses on affordable housing, working with low-income communities of color. He said lack of credit is an issue he’s all too familiar with.
“It is a barrier to housing access and housing opportunity. We recognize that there are gaps,” Payne said.
But there may be a solution with an existing city program, said H Spees, the city’s director of housing and homeless initiatives.
“We do have a program here in our community called Landlord Engagement and Mitigation that gives extra case management to folks and works with landlords to give them incentives to take people, to give people a second, third, fourth chance who have had evictions,” Spees said.
Council member Miguel Arias said the lack of credit issue was his most surprising takeaway. He hopes to incorporate these requests into the next wave of funding.
“What you heard today was, give us showers and restrooms where we're at, give the job listings, the access to the computer systems, you know. The lady just came up to me and just said, you know, ‘I can't even get a bus pass to be able to get to my work or my medical appointments.’ Those are simple things that we all take for granted when we're not living the streets, but they are critical if you want to lift yourself up from calling the streets of Fresno home,” he said.
The town hall was a big first step for the unhoused community, said Dez Martinez, homeless advocate and founder of the non-profit We Are Not Invisible.
“I think they were scared. But a lot of them were so scared and angry at the time because they never got a chance to express themselves,” Martinez said.
Residents were also able to submit a survey. The forms will help city leaders better understand what changes they need to tackle next.