• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

How the Homelessness Crisis Hit One of California’s Most Affordable Cities | Roaming

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Apr 17, 2022

Jesus Ramirez spent years looking for affordable housing in Fresno, California. He jokes that he will stay on the streets until he is old enough for a nursing home.

For the past two years, the 47-year-old has spent most of his nights sleeping outside closed businesses in the heart of California’s Central Valley. Suffering from schizophrenia, he receives $950 a month in government assistance, but he couldn’t find room in his budget at Fresno, which had the biggest rent increases of any US city last year.

“I tried,” he said. “But at this point, if I haven’t found one of those apartments where it’s based on your income and your sanity, chances are I won’t find one.”

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Ramirez lost his home at a time when California’s homeless population has increased dramatically amid the pandemic, prompting the state to invest billions in housing and related services to address the long-running crisis. . Fresno, the fifth largest city in the state and one of the most affordable, has seen a substantial increase; the number of homeless people has risen from 1,486 people in 2019 to around 4,239 in 2021, according to city data which both officials and advocates agree is likely to be a sub -enumeration.

Local officials once considered Fresno a success story — by its own calculations, the city managed to reduce homelessness by nearly 60% between 2011 and 2017, the biggest drop on the entire West Coast — but the numbers have started climbing again even before the pandemic. In 2019, Fresno had a higher rate more people living on the streets than any other major city in the United States.

Now that rents continue to rise, pushing Fresno’s poorest residents into substandard housing or forcing them out of the area altogether, homelessness in the city has reached unprecedented levels. Officials said they’re doing everything they can to find solutions, using state and federal funds to expand housing options, but advocates question the city’s approach and argue Fresno leaders don’t fail to adopt policies that will prevent the crisis from worsening.

Dez Martinez, a homeless advocate, at the former location of Dream Camp which she founded and managed, providing safe haven for 32 street family members. Dream Camp was licensed by the City of Fresno in February 2022.

“We don’t see the urgency these kinds of issues deserve,” said Grecia Elenes, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an advocacy organization based in the Central Valley. “Almost every week, without fail, we have a new stat about how unaffordable the city is, how people born here can’t stay, and how they live in horrible conditions.”

A growing city

Fresno has always been one of the most affordable places to live in California and among the most diverse cities in the United States, but it’s also one of the poorest. Rising rent prices amid a statewide housing crisis that is pushing more Californians to towns in the agricultural Central Valley, stagnating wages and a shortage of nearly 40 000 affordable housing units, part of a vast shortage, have made it even more difficult for homeless residents such as Ramirez to find their place.

“There has been no construction of new affordable housing and rental units that could ever accommodate the growing city,” said Jim Grant, retired social justice ministry director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. “We are half a million people, and we don’t have living conditions worthy of half a million people.”

Ramirez tried unsuccessfully to get housing through local programs that offer subsidized rent based on income and mental health issues. He wants to work, but has been without the medication he needs for his schizophrenia for over a year, making it difficult to show up for work.

Instead, he uses his limited income to feed himself and join a gym so he can shower, work out and charge his phone. He now knows how to live on the streets – he wears quick-drying clothes and shoes he can re-sole and wears a shower curtain to sleep because it wards off mold better than a tarp.

Three women near a car, one woman holding shorts
Street family member Mary Richardson looks through a bag of clothes donated by Martinez and activist Erlinda Lagunas.
Four women standing near a car
Martinez and Lagunas distribute pastries and bread to Richardson and Jessie Tolentino, another street family member, at the Shields’ encampment.

Ramirez would like to find a room somewhere, but he has no hope of that happening and he thinks he will be homeless for most of his life.

“I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. i don’t need one [whole] apartment, or an extra spare bedroom for a gaming system,” he said. “I’m okay with the fact, the knowledge, that I’m going to be homeless until I’m old enough to go into a nursing home.”

“You have to treat people as if they were human”

For the past month, Ramirez has been staying in a room at one of the motels the city has converted into temporary housing for people living on the streets, but he doesn’t know how long that arrangement will last. The city’s current approach to addressing homelessness has included providing shelter in converted motels, investing in services to reduce homelessness and creating a new response team, H Spees said. , director of the city’s housing and homelessness initiatives.

The shortage of affordable housing, coupled with rising rent prices, has exacerbated homelessness in Fresno, Spees said, but the rise was not unique to the city. It was the consequence of “multiple system failures in society” that include everything from domestic violence to mental health to addiction.

“We understand it’s not just a Fresno problem. It’s a national problem,” Spees said. “[The] mayor and our community sees homelessness as the number one issue. If we don’t tackle homelessness, we feel like we’re losing the soul of our city.

A blue tent in a dry field, houses in the background
A tent belonging to a street family member seen at Shields’ encampment in Fresno, California.

The city was making progress, he argued. Fresno had removed encampments from its highways, providing housing for those who lived there, Spees said, and launched a homeless response team that works directly with unprotected residents to connect them to resources.

But advocates say Fresno’s efforts are far too weak, maintaining the status quo, and failing to provide real support and dignity to homeless people.

Many who work directly with homeless people, like Dez Martinez, an advocate who spent several years living on the streets of Fresno, question the city’s data and doubt that it has ever made progress in reducing homelessness.

“It’s so overwhelming,” Martinez said. “During Covid the number skyrocketed but since being on the streets I have only seen an increase each year.”

Martinez spends her days championing what she calls “the street family” through her own nonprofits and roles on various committees, and visiting converted camps and motels where everyone knows her by name. her name. A recent incident at a motel underscored everything wrong with the city’s approach, she said.

A woman dressed in red looks at a commemorative plaque
Martinez reads the names of those who were buried en masse in a plot at Potter’s Field, a cemetery for the poor, the unknown and the homeless.
A camper van seen across a field of dead grass
A trailer belonging to a street family member seen at Shields Camp.

During the visit, tensions rose when police responding to a call sought to interview an emotionally distraught man. He grew increasingly upset as two officers surrounded him, causing Martinez and another motel resident to step in to defuse the situation despite the officers’ protests. The couple managed to calm the man down when officers and paramedics couldn’t, and eventually the officers left.

“If I wasn’t there, and if we couldn’t defuse and bring in the other family members from the street, they would all have approached [him]. It would have been lousy,” Martinez said. “You have to treat people like they’re human.”

Programs such as the new Homeless Response Team were not helping to foster a more humane approach, she continued. City leaders hailed the new team, which is also tasked with clearing settlements and connecting residents to housing. Martinez and others are critical, not least because of a new city law instituting a $250 fine for lawyers who enter encampments officials attempt to clear. Martinez said the law shows Fresno doesn’t really want to work with defenders like her. The ACLU sued the city over the law, calling it “outrageously wideand an attack on the constitutional rights of lawyers.

People need housing and complementary services such as placements and mental health treatment, Martinez said. Advocates also hope to see the city implement rent stabilization, the right to counsel and fair housing, policies recommended by a consultant hired by the city.

A woman looks at the memorial written on a concrete column
A memorial written on a pillar at the former site of Dream Camp, founded and run by Martinez, but cleared by the city in February 2022.

“The city only has these band-aid solutions to the housing crisis,” said Karla Martinez, policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “They buy motels, but don’t provide preventative solutions to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.”

“It’s always been a crisis,” said Janine Nkosi, an activist with Faith in the Valley, a community organization that campaigns for safe and affordable housing. “It just doesn’t have to be like that.”

Stabilizing rents and stronger protections against eviction would help prevent more people from losing their homes in the first place, advocates say — something Dez Martinez has personally seen. She has been housed for several years but faces eviction after a dispute with her landlord, who she says has failed to provide safe accommodation. Although she has found another place to live, the incident reminds her of how easy it is to lose your home.

“What about all the others who don’t have the connections I made?” she says. “We have to think about the people who are deported. Once you’re here, it’s the hardest thing to get off the street.