Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer in the hot seat as Newsom’s ‘working partner’ on homelessness

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA/ezamora@fresnobee.com

Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer went to Sacramento to plead for state funding to help the city confront homelessness and, voilà.

Two work days later, the city’s communications department issued a press release announcing that $6 million worth of Homelessness Housing, Assistance and Prevention grants ($6,019,405.72, to be precise) was on its way.

This after California Gov. Gavin Newsom had threatened to withhold funds that were previously allocated to cities. Which, in his mind, weren’t doing enough to address the crisis.

“What I want to see is what everybody wants to see: the streets of California cleaned up,” Newsom told reporters. “We want to see encampments cleaned up. We want to see people housed. We want to turn the conditions that we’re experiencing around.”

Whatever Dyer said during that Nov. 18 meeting, Newsom must’ve been impressed. Afterward, the governor praised Dyer as a “perfect example of a working partner” in those efforts and reopened Fresno’s tap.

Opinion

If only solving homelessness was as simple as throwing more money at the problem. Or drumming up positive press for securing those dollars.

Then we’d be getting somewhere.

How many millions of dollars does it take to put a roof over Fresno’s unhoused?

The answer, at least so far, is $230 million. That’s the running tab (in state and federal grants) of combined homeless services funding allocated to the city of Fresno, the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care and both Fresno and Madera counties over the last three years.

Of that $230 million, $150 million (roughly 65%) has been secured by the city of Fresno — including a whopping $98.5 million in the current fiscal year.

Turning Motel Drive into emergency housing

Where am I getting these numbers? Straight from the city’s application to procure even more state funds from the latest round of HHAP grants that was unanimously approved by the City Council during its Nov. 3 meeting.

If you’re curious as to how all that dough is being spent, a thorough answer would take up the remainder of our time together and wouldn’t be all that fun to read.

Suffice to say the largest chunk has gone toward the purchase of nine motels (by both the city and Fresno Housing Authority) for use as emergency shelters and then converting four to permanent housing. All are located along Fresno’s infamous Motel Drive near Highway 99 and Olive Avenue, an area once described as “an epicenter of human and drug trafficking” by City Councilmember Miguel Arias.

Thanks to those investments (mainly via Project Homekey), the number of shelter beds available throughout Fresno and Madera counties increased from 400 prior to the pandemic to 1,795 this year.

As a result of having more low-barrier facilities available, the city of Fresno saw a 95.6% increase in the number of sheltered homeless individuals as well as a 12.8% decrease in the number of unsheltered people, according to the 2022 Point in Time Count.

Which is where Dyer gets the 13% reduction in Fresno’s homeless population that he likes to cite during interviews. As well as the 8% decrease projected for this year.

Those figures (13% and 8%) must’ve sounded pretty good to Newsom, who previously called a 2% statewide decrease in homelessness “unacceptable.” No wonder why Newsom sent Fresno the final $6 million of the $7.5 million in HHAP grants originally allocated to the city. Most of that $6 million will go toward emergency shelter in the Motel Drive area.

A dent in Fresno’s homeless population

How successful has that effort been? According to a homelessness update presented by city staff during a City Council workshop in August, 2,405 “clients” were “served” at Motel Drive emergency shelters through July 31. At the end of their stays (intended to be no longer than 90 days), 23% exited into permanent housing while 53% made so-called “safe exits.” The remaining 23% violated rules and did not return.

Although Fresno has made a dent in homelessness, the current concern is there won’t be enough emergency shelter beds available to meet the next spike once roughly half the Motel Drive properties are converted to long-term housing and the federal and state subsidies dry up.

What happens then?

Homelessness has long been a front-burner issue for Dyer. Ever since Fresno’s police chief-turned-mayor (accompanied by homeless advocates and city staff) rousted dozens of individuals and families camped along Highway 41 from their tents on cold, rainy mornings in January 2021 and offered them temporary housing and a hot breakfast.

That effort, known as Project Off-Ramp, significantly reduced the number of people camped along Fresno’s freeways. Its success appears to have further emboldened Dyer to keep plowing ahead against a societal issue whose symptoms probably cannot be solved through government spending alone.

Credit the mayor for trying. For devising a homeless strategy, going to Sacramento and getting Newsom to kick down that $6 million. But if in five years we look back and wonder why so many people are still living on the street and in their cars, Dyer will be the one catching blame.