DJ Becker/The Madera Tribune
A group of five or six shopping carts filled with neatly folded blankets, clothing and other makeshift belongings sit along the river trail near Schnoor Avenue recently. A homeless man, or men, have apparently been ousted from their previous squatting location and can be seen sitting under the shade of the trees in the 105 degree heat. Living or camping in public spaces is illegal but often the last resort of the homeless population who refuse treatment or other assistance.
Homelessness in Madera is on the rise and isn’t going away soon, community leaders learned Wednesday at a quarterly Madera Vision 2025 assessment, to share ideas and updates on the issue of the homeless in Madera.
The goal of the meeting was informational, trying to match complex needs of the homeless with the many local public and private resources trying to help, according to facilitator Mary Anne Seay, director of Parks and Community Services for the City of Madera.
“Everyone here is working to improve the situation.” Seay said. “There is no lack of love or drive to try and fix this, but there is a lack of resources. What’s happening here is (all the) little pieces are coming together as a community, departments, community groups and volunteers.
Local experts estimate Madera is currently about 200 beds short of meeting housing needs to shelter those individuals that are seeking housing assistance.
In a newly formed joint effort, Madera County and the City of Madera have begun the process of identifying encampments and long-term homeless individuals, through code and law enforcement personnel. Once identified, individuals are then prioritized for action or medical needs and matched with the roughly 20 local supportive services based on their vulnerability scale or index.
Madera County Housing Authority director Linda Shaw said the initial project will begin small this winter, with 10 units out of the 50 at the Pomona Ranch seasonal migrant housing facility on Avenue 12.
“We want to be sure we can get the (process and) service delivery right,” Shaw said.
The facility is in use by migrant agricultural workers six months out of the year, but recently received $100,000 in grant funding to be retrofitted with heaters so that the units can be used for the homeless through the winter months. Hope House will manage the facility and the tenant process, Shaw said.
City Councilman Will Oliver said he was hopeful the efforts would be scaled up once the extent of the homeless population was identified and local resources and services begin working together.
The annual Point In Time Count of the local homeless population held in late January is essential to collect information, Oliver said.
“It’s a very important exercise and a call to action for anyone who wants to get more involved. It requires volunteers to go and survey the homeless people who are residing under our bridges and in our parks or in our vacant buildings. Find out basics like who they might be, and what their health status is, so when services become available we can better (provide) those. It also allows us to collect better data so we can apply for grants and other resources. We need as many volunteers as possible. I guarantee it will open your eyes, and you will find it rewarding and meaningful,” Oliver said.
Chief of Police Steve Frazier said the Madera Police Department was involved in both the law enforcement and outreach efforts in dealing with the local homeless population.
“We sometimes have a very narrow road to walk,” Frazier said. “The Community Action Partnership puts out a great document, a community-needs assessment, and they identified 271 homeless in Madera (city and county).” He said 179 are men, 92 are women.
“That may not seem like a lot to you, but that’s 271 people that don’t have a place to stay. While I am law enforcement, I do believe firmly that you should love thy neighbor and find some way to take care of them. We do clearly have a (homeless) issue in the city and county, and it’s up 3.4 percent from the previous year,” Frazier said.
The recent passage of Proposition 64, the state measure allowing the growing of up to six marijuana plants for recreational use and the use of marijuana within a private home is also expected to have a significant impact on the number of homelessness, according to Frazier.
“We have data from (other) states that have had marijuana legalized (for retail sale) for several years.” Frazier said. “And the one thing that everything everybody points to is a significant increase in homelessness. As a consequence (of Proposition 64) you will see more homelessness come into our community. I think that is a foregone conclusion,” Frazier said.
In 2015, the Madera Police Department had 417 calls for service regarding homeless issues, 2016 saw a 14 percent increase to 489 calls and 2017 has seen 539 calls with two months yet to go, Frazier said.
During the contact process, Madera police are identifying each individual and asking about their needs.
“Every contact we have we make a point to ask if they want help, because there is help available to them,” said Frazier, who also said most reply they don’t want help, and that tends to compound the problem of getting them help.
“A small portion are out there because of economic circumstances, but most of them are out there because of mental health problems, or addiction or something else ... 26 percent report mental health issues and 12 percent report addiction. And I would venture those numbers are significantly low. Our problem is not just they don’t have a roof over their head; we need to make sure they have contact with Behavioral Health Services and are moving forward with us. This has got to be a community effort, and I am fearful it’s only getting worse,” Frazier said.
Debi Bray, president and CEO of the Madera Chamber of Commerce, described the impact of homelessness on the local business community and went on to detail her experience with an ill, homeless man frequently behind the Chamber of Commerce building.
“It’s a very difficult situation for business owners ... especially when they don’t want help. I have a gentleman that comes, and I know when he’s there because he has a horrible breathing problem. I can hear his (labored) breathing from inside. I just know one day I am going to come and I am going to find him there (deceased),” Bray said, fighting back tears. “But he will not accept help. I have begged him to let me call an ambulance but he won’t accept help. But we can’t have that behavior in front of our businesses. However, there is also no place for them to go ... if they are drinking or have a substance abuse problems."
Several participants called for joint task force to coordinate efforts but use all existing local agencies.
Resident April Molina suggested some of the funding already existed locally, and a public education campaign was needed.
“Part of the the funding solution is already available here. It’s in people’s pockets. What I see is people flipping dollar bills out their car windows (to panhandlers on the streets). Molina said. ”What we should be doing is donating to the Rescue Mission,” rather than enabling the alcohol or drug addicted on the streets.
Mayor Andy Medellin said he was hopeful and the meeting turnout exceeded his expectations.
“It was a fantastic turnout and was definitely positive,” Medellin said. “We had a room full of people concerned about and with ideas about homelessness. It’s a growing and very complex (problem) across the nation and the state, so there is no one particular solution. In my personal opinion, I think the 271 count (local estimate of the homeless) is low. But before we address the issues we need to know what the extent of those problems are. This (group) is a great start,” Medellin said.