© 2024 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
89.3 Fresno | 89.1 Bakersfield
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fresno County struggles to find permanent home for state-issued trailers meant for homeless

Travel trailers sit parked on a lot near Sands Motel in Fresno.
Soreath Hok
Travel trailers sit parked at lot near Sands Motel in Fresno in early February 2023.

Fresno County is still working out a plan to utilize travel trailers initially meant to be used as shelter for the county’s unhoused population.

FRESNO, Calif. – As the pandemic began to set in in 2020, hundreds of travel trailers were rushed to California cities and counties to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among homeless populations.

The trailers were part of a $150 million state initiative to fund emergency homelessness actions.

Twenty-eight trailers were first issued to the city of Fresno, then, according to county spokesperson Sonja Dosti, the trailers were eventually signed over to the county, who would take them over as shelter units.

But three years since the trailers made their way to the county — and with the end of the pandemic emergency declared — the county is still searching for a permanent solution.

The trailers were used on and off as emergency shelter at the height of the pandemic, but KVPR learned most of them sat empty for months as advocates pushed for more action on tackling homelessness.

Dosti estimates the homeless population breakdown in Fresno County includes 2,200 unsheltered homeless people and 1,700 sheltered homeless people. At the beginning of this year, Dosti said the county was sheltering over 100 individuals through four shelter locations.

She said the county’s partnership with the Fresno Housing Authority has provided nearly 200 affordable housing units, with 20 more in construction. Fresno Housing Authority properties such as Alegre Commons and The Villages at Paragon and The Villages at Broadway are developed with the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health.

But having enough housing available has proven to be a stubborn challenge in the county. The trailers were supposed to at least remedy some of that shortage during the pandemic, according to their intended use.

In early January, KVPR counted at least 19 of the trailers sitting in a vacant lot by the Sands Motel – a facility renovated as a temporary homeless shelter near Golden State Boulevard and Highway 99. The county said the trailers had been returned there since July 2022.

In February, the county stated over email most of the trailers were no longer being used for COVID-19 response since early 2022, so 20 trailers were returned to the county to be repurposed as transitional housing.

Today, Fresno County still oversees a total of 24 of the 28 trailers given to them by the state, since three were given to Madera County and one was stolen, according to county administrative officer Paul Nerland.

Of the trailers overseen by Fresno County, 17 are parked at the Fresno Fairgrounds as shelter units for displaced flood victims, four are in the hands of RH Community Builders – a Fresno-based homeless services and affordable housing developer – two are with the Fresno Mission and one is placed at Poverello House.

Shifting priorities for trailers

RH Community Builders operates the Sands Motel and was helping store the trailers on the property until they could be utilized. Last year, after Fresno County designated RH Community Builders to run the trailer program, the county allocated $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project. But the path forward was still unclear.

The problem was neither the county nor the city could agree on a plan to actually operate the trailers for homeless housing.

“There were numerous locations that we looked at, and it was clear that we were not able to find a location where we could have support from the city,” Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig said during a board meeting earlier this month – one year after the funds had been allocated.

At the same board meeting, county supervisors voted to reallocate the $1 million for the trailers project to renovations at the commercial kitchen for Poverello House instead.

The county’s original plan for the trailers was to operate them in a single location as temporary shelter units for unhoused people.

But the trailers needed to be near a facility that could offer social services to the residents. They also needed to be hooked up to utilities like water, power and sewer.

Magsig said in February the county expected the city would help secure a location for the trailers.

Fresno Council Member Miguel Arias later said the locations the county proposed were not properly zoned for housing and placing them in inadequate areas for housing would violate zoning rules.

At the Sands Motel lot, the Bullet and Springdale model travel trailers sat parked side by side for months. On the outside, they appeared in good condition.

The makers of the trailers advertise these trailers as RV campers. Each trailer allows for at least four people to sleep inside, complete with a kitchen, bathroom and shower.

The county plans to assess the current condition of the trailers, which officials also say have a limited shelf life and are not sustainable for long term housing.

Despite that, they have served a purpose for some. The record rainfall and flooding from a series of atmospheric rivers at the start of the year pushed the county to move the trailers to the Fresno Fairgrounds.

There, without a plan to operate the trailers as homeless shelters, they serve instead as emergency shelters for people displaced by flooding.

The trailers were only temporarily used at the height of the storms, but now sit empty again as floods have subsided for the most part.

The county, though, said they will remain staged at the fairgrounds in anticipation of more flooding. The state’s Office of Emergency Services fully reimburses the county for using the trailers.

Fresno homeless advocate Dez Martinez addresses Fresno County Supervisors at May 9 board meeting.
Soreath Hok
Fresno homeless advocate Dez Martinez addresses Fresno County supervisors at a May 9, 2023, board meeting.

Still, Fresno homeless advocate Dez Martinez told county leaders that during all this time, the trailers should have been used to take dozens of people off the streets.

“I feel like if we had these trailers I wouldn't have to call begging for a place for the children to go in an emergency upon awaiting a shelter bed,” Martinez said during public comment at a recent supervisors meeting.

Martinez told KVPR she believes the use of the trailers and the funding meant to support their use was misdirected, referring to the million dollars moved from the trailer project to the Poverello kitchen renovations.

“I don’t think that this million dollars that was supposed to be for housing, for shelters, for emergencies, should be used to reconstruct or rebuild somebody’s kitchen,” she said.

Homelessness crisis demands more of city, county

The back and forth of the trailers indicates a larger problem in the county, council member Arias said: There is still much to do in order to provide shelter for the homeless population.

But he claimed the city is doing its part by increasing housing.

“There is very little permanent affordable housing being built by the County of Fresno,” Arias said. “The vast majority of affordable housing units are being built by the City of Fresno.”

Sands Motel is temporary homeless shelter operated by RH Community Builders
Soreath Hok
The Sands Motel is a temporary homeless shelter operated by RH Community Builders.

Through the government-funded “Project Homekey,” most motels turned into shelters for the homeless are concentrated in Arias’ district. And he said despite this work to move people into housing, he still sees trouble ahead.

In the coming year, half of the city’s shelter beds will transition to permanent housing and there’s no temporary shelter being built to replace those shelter beds. Sun Lodge, formerly known as Days Inn motel, is the first facility on the Motel Drive corridor just east of Highway 99 to make the transition to permanent housing.

“I anticipate that the amount of homeless we had in our freeways and streets two years ago will return in the next six to eight months,” Arias said.

The looming increase in homelessness yet again also means more mental health and social services are needed to keep pace with growing demand, Arias said – a responsibility he says falls on the county.

Magsig told KVPR the county does that and more. He said the county has allocated $1.4 billion out of the general fund for human services.

The funding helps departments like social services, behavioral and public health. Magsig said the money translates to supportive services for people like the county-funded General Relief program, which provides grants to assist with food, shelter and other living expenses.

The county also points to its funding of the Multi-Agency Access Point Program, or MAP, which links people in both the city and county to services like mental health, substance abuse, housing and social services.

Magsig said the county’s work mixes in with the city of Fresno’s own efforts to provide housing.

“When the City of Fresno creates a housing unit, I see that as a win not just for the city of Fresno, but for the whole region because we currently are working as a team as we provide these wraparound services,” he said.

But Arias said there are still not sufficient services for the amount of people who need it.

“We have yet to see the continuum of care or the county spend the resources in opening more shelter beds, which addresses the immediate need to get people off the street,” Arias said.

And the shifting use – or non use – of the shelter trailers isn’t over.

The county plans to make a new recommendation that will allow the trailers to be used as housing at their meeting later this month. Magsig said he does hope to see the trailers put to use. Though, he said the approach may shift from its original plan.

“We do plan on working with many of the great nonprofits out there… in finding a way to have them fully utilize those trailers,” Magsig said.

Martinez, the homeless advocate, however, hopes this may be the end of the back and forth between city and county – because there’s a real issue that needs fixing.

“Stop challenging each other and work together,” Martinez said in an interview. “It's frustrating living in a city where your county and your city leaders are fighting each other and blaming each other. I blame them all.”

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.