Katherine Miranda stands outside Fresno’s Crossroads Village housing complex overlooking Blackstone Avenue. She just moved here about a month ago. Before that, she was on the streets for nine years. Her first night in her new room was so quiet, she says.
“The first night I couldn't sleep because we were so used to the train,” she laughs. “But I mean, it’s wonderful,” she says.
The facility used to be Smugglers Inn, then Hotel Fresno. But just this year, the north Blackstone location reopened, newly renovated as a permanent housing option for formerly homeless and low income tenants.
Miranda found out about housing programs through the Poverello House and applied. She chose Crossroads Village, where tenants are required to pay a monthly subsidized rent and sign a 12-month lease.
“Why should I go somewhere I don't have to pay rent? That’s going to make me, that’s just like being out on the streets except for you have somewhere over your head. You know what I mean?” she says.
Miranda believes taking on the financial responsibility is key to getting back on her feet. And she’s able to stay here because with the pandemic came millions of dollars of extra funding for homeless housing and strict deadlines for development.
Fresno County used its $15 million grant from California’s Homekey project to purchase and renovate the hotel into 165 permanent housing units.
“Crossroads Village has been a unique opportunity to bring a large amount of units on very, very quickly,” says Katie Wilbur, executive director of RH Community Builders, the private developer that renovated the facility and operates the program in partnership with Fresno County.
On this day, she gives a tour of the property.
“So this is our main building. We do have two community spaces in here,” Wilbur says, showing off a room where Crossroads Village will be partnering with Fresno City College to offer GED classes. The same room will host resume and budgeting workshops for residents.
She takes out her keys to open the door to a studio. It looks like a typical hotel room with two queen sized beds.
“They come with a microwave, hot plate and refrigerator. And it’s their home,” Wilbur adds.
Wilbur says the ability to renovate an existing space was the fastest solution to offer housing to a growing population of people experiencing homelessness.
Newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the rental vacancy rate in Fresno dropped from 6.9% in 2019 to .08% in 2020, as available housing disappeared during the pandemic.
One reason why the vacancy rate is so low is due to the moratorium on evictions put in place because of the pandemic. With fewer people leaving their residences, there’s a lot less housing available.
To combat this lack of housing, the city is working with the Fresno Housing Authority on an even larger scale motel project.
Councilmember Miguel Arias says the location is a strip of motels on Parkway Drive right across from Highway 99.
“The city has acquired six motels in this drive and has renovated five of them. And they’re fully occupied now,” he says.
Like Crossroads Village, the purchases and renovations for these motels were put on the fast track due to $34 million from the Homekey project. The city allocated another $8 million in CARES Act money to fund motel operations for the next five years.
The project is in a blighted area, says Arias.
“This is what is known as the Red Light District of the Central Valley,” he adds.
Arias says he saw an opportunity to clean up the area by targeting motels engaging in illegal activities.
“The level of human trafficking and drug trafficking was so blatant, that they would do it in the open,” Arias says, pointing to a motel on Parkway Drive, largely quiet and empty on this Friday afternoon.
Although six motels have been purchased for housing renovations, another six to eight motels are still privately owned in the area. Arias says the City of Fresno is in negotiations to purchase at least three more motels for renovations.
He says turning some of the most run down motels into temporary housing for homeless individuals is a win-win. He points to a motel that’s now been converted to temporary housing for those transitioning from drug treatment programs.
“This was Parkside Inn, one of the worst facilities of Human Trafficking,” Arias says pointing to a motel where the perimeter is covered with a chain link fence. There are safety measures to protect residents.
“As you can see the facility is gated off,” Arias says.
Each renovated motel has 24-hour security and most are gated to keep non-residents out. But because of the area, the project does have its critics.
“We’re dealing with people with drug addiction, people with mental health, people that are just down on their luck and we’re putting them all together in one of the highest crime areas in Fresno,” says homeless advocate Dez Martinez.
She’s making dinner this afternoon at one of the encampments she manages at the corner of Broadway and San Benito under the Highway 99 overpass.
“Hold on one second I think my beans are burning,” Martinez says as she runs to check on the big pot of beans she’s cooking to make sure they aren’t burning. “Oh no, they’re not whew!”
She lived on the streets for a year and a half and now runs her non-profit, We Are Not Invisible, which provides support services for the unhoused.
Despite the fence and the security, she thinks the Highway 99 project is too dangerous. She says her friends who have been placed in the motels don’t feel safe.
“It wasn’t cleaned up. We just scooped up a whole bunch of people and just threw them into a pit of wolves,” she says.
Martinez was especially concerned about the location of the women and children’s shelter.
“We have a family motel on the same block with drugs, sex trafficking, all that stuff. We could have had the family motel, the family shelter, way away from there, not on Parkway,” she says.
These motels are what city officials call “transitional housing” that will ultimately be renovated into permanent housing. Because money from the Homekey project was used to renovate the motels, they are required to eventually become permanent housing units. For now, because of the lack of housing in Fresno, there’s no limit on the amount of time people can stay for free at these motels.
But Martinez isn’t critical of all the housing projects. She says she really likes Crossroads Village.
“It’s great because the property is beautiful. The building looks beautiful. You are a product of your environment,” Martinez says.
Back on Blackstone Avenue, Katherine Miranda agrees. She plans on staying at Crossroads Village for a long time. And now she’s looking for work. Her Crossroads Village caseworker recently helped her apply for a job at the Poverello House.
“Yeah, until I feel that I’m fit enough, or ready enough to go out there into the world to have my own place, I’ll be here,” Miranda says.
And she won’t be alone. The complex is approaching 80% capacity and should be filled up by the end of March.