Sept. 11 (Source: By George Hostetter, The Fresno Bee, Calif.) - Work is expected to begin soon on a new idea in Fresno — housing built for the homeless.
Citing the needs of a growing homeless population as well as the moral and legal duty to play fair, the City Council has signed off on a $1.5 million loan to help fund construction of a large housing project for people currently living on the streets.
The $11.8 million project near the Poverello House is the first of its kind in Fresno.
The city and a multitude of government, nonprofit and religious organizations have long tried to stem the rising tide of homelessness with stopgap measures such as emergency housing vouchers.
But city officials say the proposed 70-unit Renaissance at Santa Clara marks the first time City Hall has ventured into building new housing specifically designed for the chronically homeless.
With thousands of people sleeping on sidewalks or under bridges every night, the officials add, this historic project will not be the last of its kind.
“We see more and more of our low-income families becoming homeless because of our economic situation,” says Claudia Cazares, manager of the city’s Housing and Community Development Division. The Renaissance at Santa Clara “is a very positive step forward.”
But the project already is sparking debate. That’s because more projects such as the Renaissance are coming, city leaders say, but not everyone is happy about the thought of them in their neighborhood.
Trying to meet the need
The homeless challenge in Fresno has become a hot-button issue. City Hall is in the midst of an effort to end chronic homelessness within a decade, and Mayor Ashley Swearengin has made the success of the “Fresno First Steps Home” housing initiative a major goal of her administration.
Swearengin announced Wednesday that Walmart has donated $100,000 to the program. The money will be used for housing and services, particularly to the homeless living near the Monterey Street bridge, about a block south of the Renaissance at Santa Clara site.
Fresno Housing Authority executive director Preston Prince estimates Fresno has 5,000 homeless people. But government coffers are shrinking because of a recession that also is the perfect breeding ground for more homelessness.
The Housing Authority is one of many agencies tackling the problem. It recently opened the Renaissance at Trinity, a remodeled complex in southwest Fresno with 20 units for homeless people with serious mental illness.
The Housing Authority also has plans for a project called Renaissance at Alta Monte on Blackstone Avenue just a few blocks north of downtown. The renovated site will have 29 units for people with mental health challenges. On-site services will be provided at no cost.
But Housing Authority officials are counting on the Renaissance at Santa Clara to be a game-changer.
Part of the reason is its scale. There will be 69 studio apartments for the very-low income and the homeless, with one apartment for the complex’s manager.
The apartments, each about 340 square feet, will be in six two-story buildings located on Santa Clara Street, between F and G streets. This is the southern portion of a block that includes Kerr Rug Co. in the northeast corner and a fenced lot in the northwest corner that two years ago was the site of a controversial homeless encampment.
Well-known Fresno real estate developer Tom Richards owned a portion of this lot. When the homeless were removed from the lot in January 2010, Richards said he planned to build homeless housing on the site. Prince said Richards’ lot is not part of the Renaissance at Santa Clara site. However, Prince said, Richards did serve as a consultant on the project.
Housing Authority officials say the project will help revitalize a block whose northern border — Ventura Avenue — serves as a gateway from Highway 99 into downtown.
In addition to its size and newness, Housing Authority officials say, the Renaissance at Santa Clara will provide residents with access to all of the services necessary to give them a new start in life and maintain a law-abiding, stable community. For example, the Poverello House is across the street on Santa Clara and will offer medical care.
The project is expected to be finished in early 2013. The residents have yet to be selected, but Housing Authority officials acknowledge that many probably will have the same problems that bedevil so many homeless: No money, mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse.
There lies the rub for policymakers and average citizens. Prince says the Housing Authority hopes to build at least one homeless housing project a year. They’ll be located throughout Fresno County, but, since Fresno has the biggest homeless population, most will be in Fresno.
Where are these projects to go?
Robert Mitchell, a former Fresno police officer and long-time west-side leader, told the City Council on Aug. 25 that, while he supports efforts to help the disadvantaged, it’s not fair that all three Renaissance projects are in Council District 3.
District 3 includes southwest Fresno and downtown.
“This is something that should be spread throughout the city of Fresno, and not simply dropped in west Fresno,” he said.
Mitchell also said it makes no sense to build Renaissance at Santa Clara in the middle of a drug-infested area that will only tempt the residents when they walk out their front door.
“The location will not serve the people you’re trying to help,” Mitchell said.
District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines said he was voting for the project mainly because its planning began long before he joined the council in 2009. But, Baines added, location decisions must change in the future.
“We need to make sure the entire city is a part of the rehabilitation” of the homeless, Baines said.
Council President Lee Brand, who represents northeast Fresno, said he agreed with Mitchell; too many places for low-income and homeless housing in the downtown area will hurt revitalization efforts, Brand said.
Last week, Brand sounded a more cautious note on the future location of homeless housing projects than he had expressed at the Aug. 25 council meeting.
Brand said city officials must be careful about turning Fresno into a magnet for the homeless. He also said City Hall must be careful not to do anything that destabilizes neighborhoods.
City Manager Mark Scott said he supports the spread of homeless housing projects throughout Fresno. He said such projects come in many sizes, and the people they serve often have different needs. He said the projects usually are near commercial centers and public transportation links because of the residents’ special needs.
The city is reviewing guidelines for the location of homeless housing projects while updating its general plan, Scott said.
“We have to accept that this is a community-wide problem that has to have a community-wide solution,” Scott said. “The one thing you don’t want to start with is saying, ‘OK, there are certain parts of town where we just don’t do this.’ I don’t think that is fair at all.”
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 441-6272.
(c)2011 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)
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A service of YellowBrix, Inc. Publication date: 2011-09-11
Source: By George Hostetter, The Fresno Bee, Calif.