Tulare and Kings Counties Grapple with Permanent Solutions for Homeless after Project Roomkey Ends

One morning Tom Duval woke up and was shocked to find that he couldn’t lift his arms anymore. Naturally, Duval left his motorhome and went to the hospital. Little did he know, this was the beginning of his journey into homelessness.

Duval’s condition worsened and he lost the ability to move his legs. As a result, he was hospitalized much longer than expected. Perhaps too long, because by the time he was stabilized and ready for discharge, Duval’s motorhome had been given away to his friend who then suddenly passed away while Duval was at the hospital, causing the loss of his home.

For many in Tulare County, a series of unfortunate events like this ends in chronic homelessness. If they are lucky, they can spend part of the year in a warming center, sign-up for housing and spend the rest of the time trudging from encampment to encampment while they wait for their name to come up—and that’s if housing services can still find them.

But Duval is not from Tulare County. He’s from San Luis Obispo, where they have a place that kept Duval off the streets. A place that took him in after he lost his home, a place that let him stay 365 days out of the year, that gave him a space to shower, a bed to sleep in, clean clothes, and three meals a day. A place with a primary care doctor and a registered nurse that aided Duval in his recovery and helped him walk again.

That place is a 20,000-square-foot navigational center for the homeless called 40 Prado.

And Visalia might get one just like it.

But it’s not the only safety net for the homeless coming down the pipeline. Local rescue missions have new permanent housing projects for the homeless in Hanford and Tulare underway, motels like the Sequoia Lodge are being converted into permanent shelters, an ambitious nonprofit aims to start building a master-planned community by the end of the year and there are talks of Visalia erecting sanctioned campgrounds for the homeless to pitch their tents. But it still might not be enough to keep up with the flow of chronically homeless entering the system in Tulare County.

The 40 Prado of Visalia

The organization hoping to reproduce the navigational center in Visalia is a local non-profit called TC Hope. According to Rie Reniers, secretary for TC Hope, the board members consist of longtime active Visalians who all spent time at the coast and drew inspiration from the low-barrier navigation center in San Luis Obispo.

The idea was formed in June of 2019 after Don Hutton, now vice president of the nonprofit, golfed with the COO of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO), a federally designated community action agency.

Hutton stayed in touch with the COO and witnessed CAPSLO successfully launch the navigational center. He visited the facility multiple times and saw how it was taking great strides in healing homelessness. It wasn’t long before he and like-minded Visalians decided to do the same thing.

“All we wanted was to build a 40 Prado in Visalia,” Hutton said, “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

Nearly two years later, TC Hope has finally moved on from the concept phase of the project. Thanks to staff from the city of Visalia, possible avenues of funding have been identified for construction of their own navigational center.

On Monday, March 1, the Visalia City Council held a work-session meeting in which staff presented funding options for the project through the Community Development Block Grant, Permanent Local Housing Allocation and Successor Agency Housing funds.

After the council was presented with the funding options, they unanimously voted in favor of releasing a request for proposals to seek “qualified nonprofit organizations for the development and operation of a low-barrier, navigation center for the homeless within the City of Visalia.”

In other words, Visalia city will soon be taking applications from nonprofits, like TC Hope, who are interested in developing a navigation center.

And while the process is competitive, meaning TC Hope is not guaranteed to be selected as the nonprofit to bring a 40 Prado to Visalia, Councilman Greg Collins expressed that TC Hope has been making quite an impression.

“They are very motivated. They got a good board,” he said. “I don’t know who the other players might be, but they have been the most prominent in encouraging the city to erect a facility like this.”

Reniers is also confident that her nonprofit will be selected, but will still put in the effort to give themselves the best shot of being selected.

“We feel our odds are very good,” she said. “But we know we will have to work hard on our proposal to make sure we are the best candidate.”

With that being said, Collins also shared that whoever does end up taking on the development and management of the facility will not be tasked with an easy job.

“It’s a major undertaking,” he said.

Like the navigational center in SLO, the one in Visalia will be large, about 24,000 square feet. It will hold 100 people total every night with men’s dorms, women’s dorms, family dorms, a cafeteria, recovery beds and dog kennels.

It will also have some of the same services, such as primary care, mail, laundry, mental health services and recovery meetings, and will include job training as well to help employ homeless.

According to Reniers, the navigational center is expected to cost $2.5 million just to develop. Every year after that will cost about $900,000 in operation costs.

As expensive and ambitious as the project may be, it seems the state has forced the city’s hand in developing it.

According to Collins, the Supreme Court ruling in Martin v City of Boise last year has tied the hands of local government in terms of “discouraging people from camping in areas that they shouldn’t.”

The ruling prohibits preventing homeless from camping if there is an absence of alternatives, such as a low-barrier shelter. As a result, Visalia is attempting to adapt by getting the ball rolling on developing a navigational center to create a more “permanent solution” to homelessness.

According to Reniers, the navigational center will act as a safety net of sorts for those facing homelessness. It will help shelter and stabilize participants and help them transition off the streets.

And some have described the facility as a “Central Station” for the homeless, where they can be directed to further services and ultimately permanent housing.

As Hutton put it, it is the “first step” in healing homelessness. But it is not the only step being taken to remedy the issue in Tulare County.

 Rescue Missions Stepping Up

Paul Castanon, who was formally homeless, now works for the Kings Mission Gospel

If the navigational center is Central Station, then the supportive housing projects from missions like Kings Gospel and the Lighthouse may be the next stop for the navigation train.

CEO of both organizations, Dave Clevenger, has two permanent housing projects for the homeless in progress. The first is a nine-unit “pocket courtyard” in Tulare. And the second is a 48-unit “triangle courtyard” in Hanford.

Partial construction of the first project has already begun in Tulare and will be completed within a few weeks, according to Clevenger. And he expects 24 of the 48 units for the second project to be operational by June 30. Each unit will be about 600-square-feet, but will accommodate at least four people per unit.

On face value, the projects could be compared to a small apartment complex, but what sets Clevenger’s projects apart is the design of the units and the intention behind it.

According to Clevenger, the intention is based on three values: a safe place to call home, positive purposeful activities and peer support communities. And these values have shaped the project down to which direction the units face in the building plans.

Clevenger shared building plans with the Valley Voice and explained that it was important for the units to be facing each other and to have a courtyard between them, because this creates a space for collaboration and support among residents.

“This unit can keep an eye on this one,” Clevenger said as he pointed at a rendering of the Tulare project. “If someone gets sick or needs help their neighbors will know.”

Additionally, Clevenger has included a recycling center, thrift store, laundromat, food court and retail space into his Hanford plans.

He cited the need for purpose among the homeless as reasoning for the inclusion of such facilities in his plans.

“You and I have jobs, and we have a pursuit for that day,” he explained. “Homeless (people) need something to live for, to push back on the emotional pain, to have purpose in life.”

To jump start that creation of purpose, Clevenger has hired former homeless to help make his vision a reality.

Design of the nine unit pocket courtyard being built in Tulare

In fact, Clevenger started his own affordable housing development company called Pre-Fab Innovations and has hired former homeless people to help build homes for their peers.

The strategy is based on what Clevenger has tried in the past with other former homeless individuals like Paul Castanon.

Castanon was homeless for about three years. He was actually one of the people that found shelter through the Kings Gospel Church. It was there that Castanon was given the chance to find work.

Thanks to that opportunity, Castanon now has his own apartment and consistent pay through a variety of means, one of them being a recycling center that the mission operates.

According to him, the mission helped provide the foundation that he needed to get back on his feet, and he believes that if others are given the same chance, they can do the same.

“Miracles do happen,” Castanon said. “We’re all highly gifted. We do great work and great wonders.”

But miracles are not cheap. Like the navigational center, Clevenger’s projects will rely on lots of funding. The Tulare project will cost about $850,000 and the first phase of the Hanford project is projected to be about $4.5 million.

Fortunately, Hanford has provided some of the funding to offset the costs of the triangle courtyard, something that Clevenger says is the result of the city seeing the long term benefits of the projects.

“It diminishes the cost of policing and cleaning, etc.,” Clevenger said.

Clevenger also added that the Hanford project would benefit the surrounding area as well, because there isn’t much development in that part of Hanford. So adding a thrift store, food court and laundromat would be beneficial to the community.

“We’re not just bringing affordable housing,” he said. “We’re also bringing opportunity.”

And this opportunity, according to Clevenger, does not have an expiration date as both projects are planned to eventually become supportive housing with no limit on how long residents can stay.

“We are interested in people being successful,” he said. “So if they are successful with us, there is no need for them to move on.”

 

Salt + Light’s Master Plan

If Clevenger’s prefab communities in Tulare and Hanford are not your cup of tea, you can stay on the navigation train until it makes its next stop at the comfortable master community for the homeless currently under development by Salt + Light.

The young nonprofit is spearheaded by former life coach Adrianne Hillman. And like all serious solutions for homelessness, Hillman’s plan to help lift the chronically homeless off the streets is an ambitious one.

But Hillman is taking a page out of TC Hope’s handbook on this one, choosing not to reinvent the wheel.

Instead, she aims to recreate Alan Graham’s Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, a sprawling 51-acre, 400-unit community that provides affordable and permanent housing for the chronically homeless.

Hillman said she was inspired the moment she stepped foot in Graham’s village.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I believe it is the closest thing to heaven I have experienced.”

While Hillman would love to have 300 units in her own incarnation, the first phase of her plan will be a more realistic 52 homes.

The site will also have a unity hall, a community kitchen, mail services, a central park area and a memorial garden.

Hillman made a point to highlight the inclusion of the memorial garden because it symbolizes the permanence of the support being provided in the community.

Like Graham, she believes that the leading cause of homelessness is a “catastrophic loss” of family or support.

Remember Duval from San Luis Obispo? If you recall, he suffered the loss of his friend shortly before his struggle with homelessness began.

Hillman is including the memorial garden as a symbol to demonstrate that people like Duval will be treated like family.

“We’re trying to recreate that family that was lost,” Hillman said. “When people go there, they will know that they will be celebrated even in death.”

This also means that people can choose not to leave the community.

“This is permanent, supportive housing where people don’t ever have to leave,” Hillman explained. “This is a community just like your community, where you can live there as long as you live.”

Like Clevenger, Hillman’s community will also have opportunities for work such as an art house to make crafts, catering operations, a garden and maintenance positions.

One of the most notable aspects about Hillman’s approach however, is how much she emphasizes quality and dignity. She doesn’t believe in handing things down to the homeless or cutting corners to save on cost.

“I want people to be put in a home they want to live in. I want people eating good food and wearing new clothes,” she explained.

But Hillman is aware that “dignity is expensive.”

Her high standards will invoke costs somewhere in the millions. And funding seems to be the biggest obstacle preventing this master community from coming to life, something she states stalls a lot of nonprofits.

“[Nonprofits] are asked to solve these big world problems, but we’re expected to do it on a shoestring budget,” she said.

Regardless, Hillman expects that funding to be secured and construction to begin by the end of the year.

 

Motel Makeovers

While the navigational center, Clevenger’s projects and Hillman’s master plan are still in the works, there is one long-term solution to homelessness that is currently up and running.

Tulare County now has a variety of motels involved in Project Roomkey, an emergency sheltering initiative for individuals experiencing homelessness and who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But two of these motels will be transitioning from temporary emergency sheltering to permanent housing for the homeless.

Sequoia Village (formerly known as Sequoia Lodge) on Mooney Boulevard is one of these motels. The building was purchased in partnership with Tulare County and a nonprofit called UPHoldings.

It is yet to be determined when the transition will take place as funding has yet to be secured . However, there has been some clear remodeling taking place at the motel already.

A bright yellow sign over the motel has been added with the modified name, the exterior has been repainted with green trim and bright primary colors. American with Disabilities Act compliant doors have been recently installed as well.

But the most important thing to note is that unlike the other solutions, Sequoia Village has been operational since December 31 of last year, so it has already helped lift some people off the streets.

Dennis Maxwell is one of the first homeless to enter Sequoia Village when it opened in December

Dennis Maxwell is one of these people.

Maxwell was homeless in Tulare County for three years before Project Roomkey helped him find shelter, and he has spent some time in nearly all the motels involved in the project, including 99 Palms and the Lamplighter.

But he was one of the very first to enter Sequoia Village in December of last year, and has been staying there ever since while he awaits permanent housing.

Maxwell is grateful for the experience and gives the project credit for saving his life.

“I’ll be honest with you, I could have been dead already,” he said.

Maxwell parted his shirt and revealed that he recently got a pacemaker inserted.

“If I was on the street, I wouldn’t have this,” he explained. “I would probably be on the street getting high instead. Like I said, they saved my life.”

Cases like Maxwells are managed by another nonprofit that operates Sequoia Village, RHCommunity Builders. The nonprofit focuses on ending homelessness in the Central Valley by assisting community members in accessing needed services, like Maxwell’s hospital visits.

Case manager for RH Community Builders Erica Sanchez explained that ultimately everyone at Sequoia Village is working towards permanent housing, and the organization assists by connecting them with programs that help with that end.

It can be said that places like Sequoia Village have a similar role that the navigational center will have in Visalia, but with a little more privacy, as there is a limit to how many residents are put in each room.

And once Sequoia Village transitions into a more permanent state, there will be the addition of new sinks and kitchen setups for each room as well.

While Sequoia Village may be ahead of the ballgame in development because it purchased a completed facility as opposed to building from the ground up, motels like this are just a small piece of the homeless solution efforts growing in Tulare County.

Reniers said it best when referring to all of the moving pieces mentioned thus far.

“I think what we want from the public is an understanding that at the end of the day, we need all of it,” she explained. “You can’t say one is more important than the other.”

 

It’s Still Not Enough

However, even if all of these nonprofits organizations, programs and rescue missions got the funding they needed to execute their plans with perfect marks, it likely would still not be enough to remedy homelessness in Tulare County.

Even if the navigational center doubled in size, Hillman got her 300 homes and UPHoldings bought up all the motels in town, it still would not be enough because there is one overarching issue that may trump all of it: sustainability.

Reniers explained that state funding can only go so far and more long-term avenues of funding need to be acquired to keep anything going.

Many of these projects are projecting costs in the millions and that’s just to start them up.

“It is easier to get funding to start building, but not operating costs,” she said. “We will need support from the community to stay afloat.”

Councilman Collins offered a potentially more cost-effective solution to work in tandem with the navigational center during Monday’s work session. He suggested creating zones where homeless unable to find shelter can pitch their tents.

However, as good-intentioned as the idea might be, Modesto has tried something similar to remedy the homelessness issue and it was not cheap.

It cost the city about $1.6 million, and that was just for 10 months of operation.

“It’s still a very expensive model,” Machael Smith, executive director of Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance explained.

Collins disagreed with Smith and believes that we can learn from Modesto and avoid the costly mistakes.

“I can assure you we’re not going to embrace the Modesto situation,” he said. “We can learn from them and avoid any pitfalls they experienced.”

Regardless, let’s say for a moment that annual funding was taken out of the equation.

Let’s say all these nonprofits secured an indefinite flow of annual funds, Collins got his cost-effective campgrounds and chronic homelessness was reduced to “functional zero,” which is a fancy way of saying we have a big enough safety net to catch everyone falling into homelessness.

Even if we got down to functional zero, there is still one more issue of sustainability:

How long can that safety net hold if the flow of homlessness keeps increasing?

According to Smith, 3,000 people entered the homeless system in Tulare County last year alone. While many of them quickly exited the system, some remained and became chronically homeless.

It is that ever-increasing number of people that remain in the system that is outpacing efforts of shelters and supportive housing. And it will prevent the county from making progress unless the root of the issue is addressed.

“We need to slow the flow,” Smith explained. “We could build housing for 1,500, but what if more people enter the system every year?”

This is exactly what happened to Utah when the state announced they reached functional zero back in 2015. It didn’t take long for those numbers to start climbing back up in the years that followed.

Smith says this is because addressing homelessness needs to be a two-fold approach. Shelters and supportive housing play a role, but the county also needs to help with mental health support, drug support, more jobs and affordable housing, as well.

“We’ll always come up short if we just focus on housing because it doesn’t stop people from going into the system,” she said.

3 thoughts on “Tulare and Kings Counties Grapple with Permanent Solutions for Homeless after Project Roomkey Ends

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  1. My dad made front page of visalia times delta weekend edition for the hell these same people did when all my dad did was pay 1400.00 a month to live in a hotel 99 palms inn that took 8 months of fighting to finally condemn all because they refused to recognize his tenant rights. However because he is just a paraplegic ex con nobody even cares about the wrong the county has done to him and others. Or that there negligent lack of actions harmed 3 first responders due to a fentynal exposure they alleged. However who in the county or any of these entities helping the homeless are being punished for their crimes. Yes people.there that are homeless have jail records by the same people who implement other laws and policies. Who enforce codes to the public yet not themselves!!! If housing authority rented a home with one of their vouchers to a private owner the private owners rental property musteet regulations. However the housing authority is allowed to bypass all these same standards? Also, where has all the funding went for repairs? Or how many people have just been shuffled to new hotels? How many families have actually got permanent housing? Your reporter was feet away from my dad. Feet away from video photo and documentations proving horrid living conditions. How they denied my father a shower for 8 months. Yet not a mention of my dad being paralyzed and being denied countless times a reasonable accommodation request for an A.D.A accessible room.

  2. I thought that project room key was here to help out the homeless? To my understanding here at 99palm was sold to the housing authorities then was rented to turning point this was supposed to be a place for the homeless COVID 19 the staff here does not know how to run the program we are prisoners here in our own room staff coming in everyday doing room check going threw all our stuff we are not in jail or prison this was supposed to be a place for us to get help to better ourselves not to be put down and get treated like we are some kind of criminals not all people that become homeless is due to drugs or criminal cases sometimes we loose what we have because of loosing a job or something tragic in our life happens here at palms 99in Tulare everybody is getting thrown out for the most stupidest things they have new rules everyday the staff here lies about everything the staff that is running this program are marijuana users staff at nite are getting drunk in clients rooms with clients and this is supposed to be an organization for the homeless security guards having sex with the clients security guards writing clients up when the are here to keep the peace and watch the premises not write reports on the clients just to get them kicked out of the program the county needs to get a whole different crew ones that are going to help us out not step on us and treat us like we are nobody

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