The Visalia Planning Commission gave its unanimous approval for the immediate opening of a warming center to serve Visalia’s unsheltered population during a special meeting Wednesday, December 1.
The warming center–a project of the Visalia Homeless Center–is open to anyone from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily through February 28. The warming center is located at the Evangelical Assembly of God (1625 E. Walnut Avenue) at the intersection of Walnut and Ben Maddox Way. Those who seek overnight shelter at the center will be provided with restrooms, storage for personal items, snacks and beverages.
Long-term weather forecasts show overnight lows in Tulare County reaching near-freezing temperatures by mid-month.
Usual Opposition a No-Show
The public hearing preceding the 4-0 vote to approve the center’s operation at a new location in a south central neighborhood of the city was notable for its lack of pushback from residents and business operators from the surrounding area. Past hearings drew overflow crowds of Visalians concerned the effort to shelter homeless residents against the elements could increase crime due to an influx of undesirable people.
“They were backed up into the lobby,” Commissioner Chris Gomez remarked to a colleague during a pre-session conversation.
That seasonal tradition seems to be losing momentum, with little community opposition to the center’s operation this go-’round. Unlike past years–when the warming center was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Hall Street in Visalia’s downtown–almost no one turned out to oppose granting a permit for the temporary warming center. Only a handful of emails against the center arrived in Senior Planner Brandon Smith’s in-box, largely addressing how the center’s clientele will arrive and leave.
Though the neighborhood is a residential zone, it surrounds a busy intersection dotted with churches and businesses, planners consider placing the warming center appropriate.
“We’re saying this use can be done,” Smith said. “We consider this a byproduct of the church that is there.”
Tempest in a TCUP
The shelter’s newly approved location is in a far less densely-populated area of town than its previous home. Its nearest neighbors are the Sierra Baptist Church directly to the west and a large pharmacy across Ben Maddox Way to the east. A walled housing project lies north on the other side of Walnut Avenue and the Packwood Creek Bike Path–and the creek itself–and only a handful of homes are scattered immediately to the south.
The neighborhood is zoned solely for residential use, Smith said, which is why special approval of the commission is required in the form of a so-called “tea cup” or temporary conditional use permit (TCUP).
Only one resident, whose home is adjacent to the warming center, spoke against approving it during the Wednesday night meeting, voicing her concern about the coming and going of the center’s clients.
“I don’t see anything for transportation on your agenda,” said neighbor Pamela Mecum. “You can see the map. Those are both busy streets. I am really concerned, having people after they get up in the morning (remaining in the neighborhood). Do they get on a bus? Do they hang out by our house?”
The city’s planning department also received three letters expressing opposition to opening the warming center, however, Mecum was the only person who appeared personally.
Rev. Suzy Ward, who heads the effort to keep the unhoused sheltered in hazardous weather, said the clients who use the shelter will not be allowed to linger once the center closes its doors in the morning. The clients will also not be permitted to arrive at the center before it opens for the night.
“We’re going to do everything we can, just like we did at St. Paul’s, to encourage people not to stay in the area,” Ward said. “We will not allow them to loiter in the area ahead of time or after time.”
It may be almost impossible for Ward and the center’s other supporters to address Mecum’s other concern, the threat of violence she believes people living on the streets present.
“I would like to see them, when they get on the bus, checked for weapons,” she said. “I know there are some nice homeless people, but there are some homeless people that are not so nice.”
A licensed and bonded security guard will be on-site starting one hour before the shelter opens in the evening, remaining until an hour after it closes to discourage clients from loitering during the day. The Visalia Police Department also intends to be strongly involved with directing the city’s homeless to the warming center, District 2 commander Lt. Kevin Kroeze told planning commissioners.
‘Walking Down the Street is Not a Crime’
VPD officers, Kroeze says, frequently direct those wandering the city’s streets on winter nights to the warming center for shelter.
“It’s quite often officers might come across someone walking down the street who doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “There are many times we might give someone a ride to the warming center.”
The center’s operators are required by the terms of the TCUP to notify the VPD when it reaches its 60-person capacity, but not for safety reasons. Kroeze says officers need to know so that, if the center is at capacity, they can stop anyone they encounter who is heading that way and avoid transporting people to the center only to find it full.
“We don’t want to displace people,” he said.
Asked by the commissioners how the VPD will handle clients of the warming center “to reduce exposure to neighbors” as they come and go, Kroeze said the VPD cannot single out citizens for special attention because of their housing and transportation issues.
“Somebody walking down the street is not a crime,” he said. “People are allowed to do that. We don’t want to displace people and make the situation worse.”
Warming Center Polices Itself
According to Officer Tim Haener of the VPD’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) team, those who used the warming center in years past have not added to the general background level of criminal activity.
“There were the same amount of calls for any other area in Visalia,” he said. “The people who use the facility regulate each other so they don’t ruin it for each other.”
Miguel Perez, executive director of the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance (K/THA), said a 2020 census of Visalia’s displaced population counted about 540 homeless individuals. Historically, the city experienced a 10% to 15% increase in that population annually.
Nearly one-quarter of those individuals have been assessed by K/THA for its program to place them in permanent homes, including 30 or so who have been approved for housing assistance, but places to put them are in short supply.
“We have 115 people who reside in the city of Visalia who have entered our system, have been assessed, …” Perez said. “These are 115 individuals who have begun the process. Unfortunately, we don’t have the (housing) units.”
Neighborhood Concerns Are Justified
Turnover created as formerly homeless clients of the shelter find homes means the faces Rev. Ward sees night to night are always changing, and that can make managing the population more troublesome.
“We may have a whole new crew,” she said. “Many of the people we’ve housed in the past are in the process of being housed or are housed. Our goal is to move these people to a safe place, but there aren’t enough units in Visalia to house the people who are already waiting.”
That uncertainty is why the approval granted Wednesday night can be revoked if the conditions of the permit are violated, and it’s why Commissioner Adam Peck applauded those who brought their concerns to the commission.
“I don’t think it’s callous to be concerned what happens in the neighborhood,” he said.
Still, longtime warming center volunteer Jeff Alexander described the atmosphere there as “law and order, meeting people’s needs, but also keeping things orderly.”
Citing the Bible, Alexander called on the commission to grant its approval on moral grounds.
“These people are our neighbors,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to do what we can.”
He concedes they often put themselves in circumstances that led to their poverty or displacement, but that should not be a factor in the decision to help.
“Some of them have made bad decisions, but I’d want help when I made a bad decision,” Alexander said. “Wouldn’t you?”