Following years of effort by dozens of individuals from no less than 15 different agencies, Visalia will finally get a low-barrier homeless shelter after the Visalia City Council approved a $5-million funding package.
Opening Planned for January 2023
At its June 22 meeting, the council approved $5 million dollars of funding for the development and operation of a low-barrier homeless shelter and assistance center planned by a group of nonprofit and government agencies headed Community Service Employment Training (CSET). The money comes from a pair of city housing funds, as well as its community development fund, in the form of $3.17 million forgivable loans with 55-year terms and $1.83 million in grants.
“I think this is a very worthwhile plan for the city of Visalia,” said Councilman Brian Poochigian, who sat on the committee that oversaw the distribution of the funds. “And also it brings in a lot of community involvement from several organizations.”
Officially entitled the Tulare County Hope for the Homeless Emergency Shelter and Navigation Center, the 6-acre project is located on the east side of North Dinuba Avenue across from the Riverway Sports Park. The planned 20,000-square-foot facility will include a 100-bed shelter with showers, a kitchen and dining area, a laundry, bicycle parking and personal item storage, as well as a playground and pet shelter.
Self-Help Enterprises–which is heavily involved with the project’s development and donated the land–will construct a 90-unit affordable-housing apartment complex on an adjacent parcel. The two projects will cover 15 acres in total.
Development and construction of the navigation center are scheduled to begin in July with an opening date planned for 18 months later in January 2023.
City’s Greatest Problem
In describing the years-long effort to bring a low-barrier homeless shelter to Visalia, Councilman Greg Collins called solving the city’s homelessness problem “certainly the most complicated thing” the council has ever had to address, while Councilman Brett Taylor said the unhoused population is a crisis for the city.
“At the end of the day, the biggest issue that I’m reminded about is the homeless population that we have and taking care of them,” Taylor said. “We’re getting pressure from all of my constituents, from all the citizens of this community to help solve this problem.”
Years in the making, planning accelerated six months ago at the start of the year, and the city soon announced it was seeking agencies interested in building and operating a low-barrier homeless shelter. CSET and Self-Help responded to the official request for proposal, submitting detailed plans that were funded Monday night ending a months-long review process.
Yet there was eleventh-hour opposition as the council prepared to finalize.
Lennar Homes’ Last-Minute Lament
Matt Backowski–an attorney for developer Lennar Homes, which is constructing a subdivision directly south of the new shelter–complained his client had not been given an opportunity to give input on the project. Lennar and other property owners, he said, would endure consequences resulting from the project.
“It goes without saying the proposed use that the city council is considering is definitely going to impact Lennar’s development, as well as some of the surrounding neighborhoods, including the neighborhood that’s just south of Shannon Parkway, behind the Target,” he said. “I think it’s unfair to the neighboring homeowners and those who are preparing to move in–and even to this council–not to have a discussion and bring the community in to provide its feedback, to be able to be heard, what they feel about this project.”
He claimed his client only discovered the extensive project by chance.
“We were lucky enough to find out about it because we caught a glimpse of it in the newspaper,” Backowski said.
Mary Alice Escarsega-Fechner, CSET’s executive director, said the organization contacted Lennar’s local representative by phone and sent repeated emails before contacting a higher-up who never followed up.
“That was all within 30 days before any of this coming up,” she said, “And that is something we’re committed to, working together with all the neighbors.”
Former Mayor Bob Link, who is working with partner organization TC Hope on the project, confirmed the attempts to reach out to Lennar and other neighbors.
“One of the things I did when I first came on board, which was in probably February or March of this year, I said, Lennar needs to be a part of this project,” he said. “I think you made the right comment, Mayor, when you said the communication problem with Lennar is there, because we have made a real effort to have conversation with them regarding this project, and we have yet to have heard word one.”
City Cannot Say No to Shelter
Lennar’s efforts to slow or stop the shelter’s construction were aimed in the wrong direction in any case.
While funded by grants and loans from the city, the project will be privately owned by CSET and operated by CSET and its partner organizations. Because the shelter is an allowed usage for the zone where it will be constructed, the city cannot deny CSET the right to construct and operate the facility, and Monday’s meeting was not convened to receive the council’s approval for the shelter.
According to Betsy McGovern-Garcia–Self-Help’s director of real estate–minimizing the any impact neighbors might experience is a key element of the shelter.
“We’ve been able to thoughtfully design the project with an entrance that is associated away from the single-family neighborhood and away from the apartments,” she said. “It’s going to be surrounded by a standing wall, a 6-foot wall, and I think on the Lennar side of the subdivision they have a 7-foot wall. That is a city street, so it’s a 60-foot right-of-way separating the single-family subdivision from our project.”
Walter Diamond, land development manager for Lennar, insisted his organization had not been informed of the project and called for additional delays to discuss the project.
“I’m in charge of all the entitlements in the Central Valley from Bakersfield to Merced. If there’s something going on in this type of arena, I would have heard about it,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”
Claiming the issues of homelessness and poverty are “near and dear to the heart” of Lennar’s regional president, Diamond implied the company would be interested in a leadership role if the council is willing to delay implementation of this attempt to aid the area’s large and growing homeless population.
“Maybe there’s some ideas we might have. Maybe there’s another piece of land that we own. Maybe there’s a lot of different things,” Diamond said. “Maybe not, but at least the due process would enable us to discuss it and be notified in a timely fashion.”
People before Profits
Brian Todd, president of the Building Association of Kings and Tulare Counties of which Lennar Homes is a member, also spoke up in defense of the profitability of Lennar’s subdivision should potential buyers learn of the nearby homeless shelter.
“That seems a very, very clear threat of changing the value of something that’s being built and planned over three years,” he said. “Now the competitiveness of that subdivision can be called into question.”
Despite the pleas from Lennar’s representatives, the council voted unanimously to award the grants and make the loans to CSET that will fund the project.
“I think no matter where we put this, we’re going to have a neighborhood upset,” Poochigian said. “This is a by-right (building) site. They have the right to build here. Lennar Homes was notified. The city needs something like this.”
A Place to Be All Day
When open, the navigation center will allow and encourage residents to remain throughout the day, not only as a means of preventing an influx of unhoused people to the surrounding areas, but also to provide additional assistance.
“One of the things that will be unique about our shelter is that we don’t kick people out in the morning,” said Escarsega-Fechner. “The shelter will be open all day, so during the evening they’ll have a place to sleep, they’ll have a place to get meals, but they’ll also have services available to them.”
Working with more than a dozen partner agencies–including Kaweah Health, Family Health Care Network, Turning Point and Family Services, as well as the city and county–CSET will provide the shelter’s temporary residents with housing while also helping them access existing social services. The intent is to find them employment or other permanent income, as well as long-term housing. The shelter will also provide on-site jobs and open space for residents so they have a place to be.
“We certainly can’t make people stay there,” said Escarsega-Fechner. “But we can certainly create an environment that will make people want to be there, so that we don’t have people just wandering all day long because they have nowhere to go.”
Better for Everyone
Giving the problem of a large unhoused population greater attention, even at the risk of reduced property values, helps the entire community at large, feel the project’s organizers.
“We certainly feel these are individuals who can no longer be ignored. It’s also a quality of life (issue) for everyone,” Escarsega-Fechner said. “If we don’t begin to address this issue, they’re still going to be out there. They’re still going to be behind the housing on the river. They’re going to be in the parks. They’re going to be everywhere.”
Using programs such as the 40 Prado project in San Luis Obispo as their model, the hope is to create an open-door facility “with dignity and respect, and certainly accountability.”
“We’re not going to create rules,” said Escarsega-Fechner. “We’ll create rules of safety, and we will have security there, but I think our intent here is that, ‘You don’t have to do this, this and this,’ before we’ll help you. Our goal is to make people well there.”
While the city cannot refuse CSET its right to build a homeless shelter on its property, it will have certain influence there.
“Once you (the city council) get involved as a lender in the project, we’re beholden to you, and our agreements with the city will include ongoing and regular reporting,” said Self-Help’s McGowen-Garcia.
The agencies involved will report to the city on a quarterly basis, and the city, as the lender, will have the right to oversee the shelter’s compliance with state and local laws, as well as with the requirements of the agencies that provided the funds Visalia is now lending to CSET.
As for the worry the navigation center will make the area less attractive, Mayor Nelson said he’s spoken with at least one prospective resident who believes that the shelter is critical and that mitigation efforts will be effective, especially after experiencing the problem as a resident of the Bay Area.
“He’s buying anyway,” Nelsen said. “So, to give me the fear-mongering kind of rhetoric, I don’t buy into it.”