Visalia has a long and notorious history with poverty.
In 1938, at the height of the Great Depression, a young John Steinbeck came to the city as a reporter. Rain had been falling steadily for three weeks, and Steinbeck found thousands of families starving as flood waters rose.
“The water is a foot deep in the tents and the children are up on the beds and there is no food and no fire” he wrote of that March flood 89 years ago, “and the county has taken off all the nurses because ‘the problem is so great that we can’t do anything about it.’ So they do nothing.”
The Grapes of Wrath
The article he was to write for Life Magazine never materialized. His shock at the conditions was too great. The work he produced instead was The Grapes of Wrath, widely considered one of the greatest works of American literature, a crystallization of the frustration at lingering poverty in the richest nation on Earth.
“When I wrote The Grapes of Wrath, I was filled with… certain angers… at people doing injustices to other people,” he later said.
Nearly a century later, those living in Tulare County still get that sense of that disquiet as they witness the degradation of humanity that surrounds us, a problem not of our making but one we must live with shoulder-to-shoulder every day.
“They’re living all over town, on culverts, on the St. John’s River, on the sides of office buildings,” said Visalia City Council member Greg Collins. “Anywhere you find a dark, out-of-the-way place, you’ll find homeless people living there.”
Injustices aside, and despite the “greatness” of the problem, today’s leaders are not sitting idle. Collins won’t let them.
When the Council was hammering out the annual budget last June, Collins asked for money to pay for a coordinator who would oversee the city’s response to the growing problem. He also wanted the city to pay for portable toilets in areas where homeless residents gather. He didn’t get either, casting the lone no vote, but he did start the conversation.
The official discussion will continue at 8:30am On Friday, January 27 at the Visalia Convention Center, as the Council meets for a day-long work session open to the public. Topics to be addressed include goal setting for the city, a reworking of Visalia’s mission statement and values, the vision for Visalia during the next decade, employee retirement planning, and the problem of homelessness.
‘A Concrete Level’
“I think we’ll have a free-flowing discussion of a problem that’s getting worse by the day,” Collins said. “Everyone’s expressing a lot of frustration, including myself. I’d like to do something on a more concrete level.”
While the city’s leaders are gathering to talk, Project Homeless Connect volunteers will be providing free services to homeless people and families at the Comision Honorifica Mexicana Americana, 466 Putnam Avenue in Porterville. The same services will be offered on Thursday, January 26 in Visalia, Hanford and Tulare.
The homeless or those at risk can receive medical, vision and dental care, bike repairs, clothing and shoes, pet services, hot meals and snacks, haircuts, social and veteran services, and employment counseling.
The Porterville event is 8am to 1pm. Services on January 26 at the other locations will be available from 8:30am to 1:30pm. The Visalia event will be held at the Visalia Rescue Mission, 741 N. Santa Fe Street; in Hanford, the services will be available at the Pentecostal Church of God, 323 East 11th Street; and the Tulare event will be held at the National Guard Armory, 649 E. Cross Avenue. Information is available at kthomelessalliance.org.
More than One Day
While these annual events help, a longer-term solution is needed, and that’s what Collins hopes he and his fellow council members can start at the January 27 work session.
“It’s a multifaceted approach to put a dent in the homeless problem, but certainly not solve it,” he said.
What he’d like to see is an outreach program for intervention before the point of crisis, work programs and “other strategies that haven’t come forth yet.”
“I think the other council members agree, but we have a different approach on going forward,” Collins said.
What Collins proposed back in June and would still like to see is a city-sponsored location where the homeless can have a more stable living situation. That plan has met with resistance from others on the Council, but Collins still thinks it’s workable.
“We’d like to have a secure place those kinds of folks can go with some limited services,” he said. “At this point, it would just be a place to establish your tent, with some porta-potties and running water.”
Letting the homeless settle into their own space is a proposal that carries some obvious negative consequences, and Collins is quick to admit that. They can be overcome, he says.
“In my mind, you’d have to have strict regulation,” he said. “As soon as you say, ‘You can go here,’ it quickly gets out of hand.”
Other communities have taken this approach with greater or lesser success, and much depends on who is allowed to participate and how well the rules are enforced.
“There are models all over, Fresno, Seattle, Sacramento,” Collins said. “It would be very limited in number, because you don’t want it to get out of control. There needs to be some kind of policing, maybe a walk-through once a day.”
He suggests a residency requirement, as well as consistent oversight. And, the risk could be worth the reward.
“At least they’d be centralized,” he said. “Those folks doing outreach would have place to locate them.”
A city-sponsored camp will not rid the city of its poverty problem, and neither can any single approach, so city leaders hope they’ll get more ideas from citizens on how to move ahead at the January 27 work session.
“I think we can do things on many fronts,” Collins said. “No one strategy is going to solve the problem.”
The city could play a still greater role if Collins gets his way, providing limited employment for a few homeless individuals looking for a way back into a more normal life.
“The other potential strategy I had, we have a lot of manual labor that needs work. I think the litter along the freeway, cleanup along the parks, in our ditches and creeks,” he said. “We could maybe employ some of these homeless folks to climb out of their employment situation.”
He also realizes a homeless camp is a temporary solution to what should be a temporary problem.
The final part of the city’s role could address finding more permanent solutions.
“The third leg would be to look for some more permanent housing in the community other than a culvert or a tent,” Collin said. “Staff will be bringing us some ideas.”
For more information on the work session and how to attend, visit the city’s website at ci.visalia.ca.us, or call 713-4512.