Fresno County’s homelessness shows no signs of abating

Communities like Sanger, Reedley take initiative to tackle homelessness at a grassroots level

A homeless couple relaxes next to their camp at Luis Ruiz Park in Dinuba. (Kenny Goodman)
A homeless couple relaxes next to their camp at Luis Ruiz Park in Dinuba. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published January 4, 2024  • 
9:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – As 2023 draws to an end, homelessness continues to rank high on the list of issues that most concern residents of cities big and small. While large cities, like Fresno, throw money at the situation with – apparently – little result, local communities have adopted different approaches to tackling the problem.

A recent report published by the finance company WalletHub ranked Fresno as the third neediest city in the U.S., after Detroit, Mich., and Brownsville, Texas. A curious ranking, to be sure – one based on 28 metrics, weighted differently, including adult and child poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, high school dropout rate, etc. The report also identified Fresno as the city with the highest homelessness rate in the country.

According to Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC), this year, Fresno had 1,819 unsheltered individuals – 123 higher than 2022. The FMCoC 2023 Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which was conducted on Jan. 24, 2023. Of the individuals surveyed in both counties, 4,493 individuals said they experienced homelessness – a 7% increase from 2022. These individuals included sheltered individuals – who, at the time of the count, were in a homeless shelter – and unsheltered individuals living on the street.

Single adults and couples accounted for 86% of the individuals experiencing homelessness. Sixty-three percent of homeless individuals were male; 36% were female and 1% were transgender, non-binary, genderfluid or agender.

Roughly 1,500 or 33% of FMCoC’s homeless population identified as being chronically homeless – that is, they experienced homelessness for one year or longer. Nearly 10% were under 18; 6% were 64 or older. Of the homeless adults, nearly 20% identified as survivors of domestic violence. Six percent were U.S. military veterans.

SET FREE SANGER

Despite its dubious distinction of having the highest homelessness rate in the U.S., Fresno has received significant funding to help it deal with its unhoused population. In June of this year, the city received $17 million from the state’s Encampment Resolution Fund. In November 2022, the city received $6 million in Homelessness Housing, Assistance and Prevention grants from the state.

But according to Father Jacob Zailian, pastor of the Set Free Church in Sanger, smaller communities, such as Sanger, routinely turn to private organizations to help them deal with their homeless populations.

“It’s the nonprofits that do most of the work,” said Zailian.

Set Free, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptists, has been providing free services in Sanger for over four years. Zailian said that nearly every homeless person he has encountered has the same problem.

“99.9% of these folks are homeless due to drugs and alcohol,” he said.

Set Free’s programs are open to all, except sex offenders and arsonists. Zailian said his is a three-phase program. The first phase is detox, which typically takes about five days. He said the program can accommodate up to 60 individuals at one time.

“We have a ranch that is about an hour out of town,” he said. After they detox, residents stay in the program from one to two months. During that time, they participate in what Zailian described as programming: faith-based studies, 12-Step work, and job training.

Zailian said people come from all over the Valley to get help, including Parlier, Reedley and Dinuba.

“We recently had someone from Sonoma County,” he said.

Set Free provides free job training and other services for individuals, provided they are committed to the program. Participants can study to be diesel truck drivers or alcohol and drug counselors.

“There are two markers,” he said. “Four and six months.” Many residents who reach four months in the program feel they have reached a tipping point in their recovery. But Zailian looks to six months as the true benchmark.

“When someone is participating for six months, there is an 80% success rate,” he said.

Zailian said Set Free relies on contracts and events to support its homeless programs. He mentioned that the church currently has work crews operating in different states, including Arizona. There was also a recent event at Petco Park in San Diego that brought in revenue to the church.

“We need one big event per month to keep operating,” Zailian said.

REEDLEY’S RESPONSE

In a Dec. 20 interview with the Times, Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba said that at any given time, Reedley has between 25 to 30 homeless individuals. Zieba said Reedley focuses on preventing people from becoming homeless because some individuals refuse assistance after they have been acclimated to that way of life.

Unlike Fresno, Reedley receives no state funding for its homeless services. Zieba said it is much more cost effective to prevent someone from slipping into homelessness than it is trying to rescue them from that existence.

“We put our efforts in the transitional housing shelter we have so families and women with children who are about to become homeless, we can get them into that shelter. We find them jobs; we find them housing options,” she said.

She said the city works with providers to help with medical assistance. But the same caveat remains: the city can only help those who want help.

“What can we do when somebody doesn’t want assistance?,” she said. “There’s no mental health hospital where we can turn them in. Even if we turn them in as a 51/50 for a mental evaluation, they’re turned right back out again in 72 hours.”

She added, “I know there is a segment of our population that simply doesn’t believe that. They can’t believe that someone would choose this lifestyle.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter