In most cities, people who live on the streets can find some relief staying for a night or two at a shelter. But in 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Tulare and Kings counties have the highest rate of unsheltered, chronically homeless individuals for counties of their kind in the nation.
Some of those individuals line up weekly outside a church dining hall in Visalia to connect with the Kings Tulare Homeless Alliance. There, they can sign up for social security or disability assistance, and check to see if any housing vouchers are available. If not, at least they can count on washing their clothes. That’s one reason Ronald Martines, who lives in his truck, is here.
“Initially for a laundry voucher, every Tuesday,” says Martines.
The 52-year-old says he’s been homeless for about six months. He moved to the San Joaquin Valley a few years ago, but then his health took a turn for the worse.
“I rented a room for two and a half years, and I just had a heart attack,” says Martines. “I had open heart, double bypass surgery, emphysema, asthma, diabetes, neuropathy.”
The list goes on, and he lost his apartment after leaving the hospital. He says he’s been trying to get disability assistance and pick up odd jobs.
“Needless to say, right now, I can’t work.”
Martines tries to stay optimistic; he says others without a car have it worse. But he is frustrated that Visalia doesn’t have enough affordable housing or more shelters.
Machael Smith, executive director for the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance says federal funding for homeless services across the two counties is about two million dollars.
“Trying to solve an issue with a very scarce amount of funds is just difficult,” says Smith. “We're stretching them as far as we can. With two million dollars, we have 20 projects.”
Right now in Tulare and Kings Counties, there are seven emergency shelters, and only one has been supported in part by government money. Smith is also part of Tulare County’s Homeless Task Force. The force includes representatives from city and county departments that interact regularly with homeless individuals, and they’re developing a new strategic plan.
“One of our focus areas, or priority areas, is to build permanent housing,” says Smith. But, she says, it’s not just about housing: many who live on the streets experience a lot of trauma.
“Unfortunately that population, on average, spends about ten years on the streets before they get into housing,” she says of the chronically homeless in Kings and Tulare Counties.
One recently-launched non-profit called Salt + Light Works is hoping to serve these people by modeling a Texas-based community.
“While we believe housing is critical to helping solve the crisis of homelessness, we actually believe that community is what actually solves, or helps to really make a huge dent in the crisis,” says Adrianne Hillman, Founder and CEO.
She’s a Tulare native, and former life coach. She’s trying to build a tiny home community that provides permanent housing to the chronically homeless. The community she envisions will also have micro-enterprises and on-site health clinics.
“It's that living in a community that is different than just living in tiny homes,” says Hillman.
The idea came to Hillman back in 2015. She wanted to support the county’s homeless population, and through her research, she stumbled on the Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. The Austin enterprise was borne out of a food-truck initiative that fed the homeless. Eventually, the endeavor pivoted to also build a permanent tiny home community for chronically homeless people.
“When I went to Austin, that was the thing that struck me first was the peaceful, clean, beautiful serenity that Community First! Village is,” Hillman says.
Hillman wants to replicate the Community First! Village as much as possible, because, she says, it works. Community First’s website says it’s retention rate is 87%.
Like Community First! in Texas, Salt+Light in Tulare would require tenants pay rent, and would teach employable skills like cooking and baking.
“I see a bakery and a cafe, and a marketplace, I see a farm, an organic garden, a bus stop, and just opportunity,” says Hillman.
But the community is still a ways off. Hillman says it likely won’t be ready for people to move in until 2021.
There’s still site plans to be finalized, and a lot of fundraising to do. Salt + Light Works is a non-profit, and Hillman wants to pull this off with grants and private donations.
She estimates it could cost around $5 million to get the community built, and then $2 million to operate annually.
She does, however, have a potential location for the 50-unit village.
“Well, right now it's dirt,” says Hillman. “A beautiful piece of dirt.”
She’s asked that we not disclose the location at the moment, because she’s already heard opposition to her project.
“NIMBY, which is the acronym for ‘not in my backyard,’ is a very, very real thing in the United States,” says Hillman. “I think it's just, it’s an organization based in fear and misunderstanding of what a project like this looks like.”
Hillman says she’s not building a shelter, or a tent community, and there are rules. Unlike other neighborhoods, there will be supportive services built in, like alcoholics and narcotics anonymous meetings.
Back at the church in Visalia, Ronald Martines says he would like to live in this type of community.
“Either I sleep in the streets or do I sleep in a little room? I would choose that room over streets when it's pouring down rain, or it’s freezing cold,” says Martines. “Yes, I would say, by all means.”
Adrianne Hillman says if it were up to her, she’d be building it already. But she’s trying to be realistic, something the name Salt + Light reminds her to do.
“It is indicative of the work we're doing,” says Hillman. “Gritty, salty, hard. Light, love and good.”
In the meantime, she’s focusing on educating the community about her efforts.