Photo courtesy of Lori Gonzales
Lori Gonzales, left, hugs a homeless woman named Vicky she has befriended.
A Madera woman on a mission to help local homeless people transition out of drug addiction spoke before the city council Wednesday night, about the growing problem of the number of drug-addicted homeless from Fresno being given a one-way ride into Madera.
Lori Gonzales, 53, and a self described independent outreach worker for the homeless and a former addict herself, said she made the dumping discovery when contacting homeless people in the Fresno riverbed, getting to know them and asking about their histories.
Gonzales said her entire motivation has been to get those willing to enter treatment in a facility or a program through consistent personal contact.
“I don’t work for anybody besides God,” she said. “I don’t get paid for what I do. All my funding comes from my family. I’ve lived that (awful homeless) life. Now I help people get off the streets and into programs, mostly drug programs. I (personally) work with them and then make arrangements with the facility, help them with whatever they need to get into that facility, and I personally drive them to the doors. I have placed 15 people so far, and it’s my way of giving back to my community.”
Many of the newer homeless people she found were from Fresno, she said, and they had allegedly been told Madera had space and programs for them. Once she discovered the situation, she began asking about it and found there were typically two to three new arrivals from Fresno each week.
The city of Fresno reportedly has a documented homeless population of around 2,000 people, with many more homeless people than available beds, but Fresno residents and business owners affected by them claim there are many more than 2,000.
Madera reportedly has around 200 homeless according to the 2017-2018 homeless count, but Gonzales estimates there could be many more — closer to 1,000 or more living in various shelters and encampments in the around the city and county.
Gonzales said she wasn’t sure who was behind the relocations from Fresno, but believes a group involved in the Multi Agency Action Program, or MAAP of Fresno, has been responsible for some of the relocations of the homeless from Fresno. The homeless she spoke with reportedly described being told there was more space in Madera and being dropped off in MAAP vans in front of The Madera Rescue Mission, whether there was a place for them or not. Many were turned away and ended up here in the riverbed under bushes, tarps or in tents, she said.
“They were brought here by MAAP without any prior arrangements or a bed for them. This is taxing. I am seeing new faces (in the riverbed) every time I go out there. Then I try and get someone a bed and our Rescue Mission is full to capacity and most of those beds are taken by somebody from Fresno — I have a problem with that,” she said.
The Madera Rescue Mission does not turn anyone away, unless they are under the influence, Gonzales said, but serves everyone on a first-come, first-served basis.
Gonzales went on to say she had just spoken with Madera Police Chief Dino Lawson at the meeting and the issue may have already been addressed. Lawson said the practice was not illegal and confirmed he was aware of the issue, and had already spoken with the MAAP agency of Fresno. He was hopeful the practice could be stopped, now that it had been identified. Lawson also said he believed some sex offenders from Fresno may have been dropped off in Madera.
Gonzales credits an opportunity to turn her life around given to her in Madera drug court, by Judge Ernie LiCalsi. “I’ve been clean for 17 months and am so grateful for that opportunity. And for my family, their support. Now I can be a stay at home grandmother ... pay this back, and do this outreach for my community.” Gonzales said.
Gonzales, along with her family and the Madera Police Department recently purchased bus tickets for a homeless, disabled senior couple wishing to return to the east coast.
Residents can help by donating to the Madera Rescue Mission or other local groups.
To help Gonzales in her homeless outreach efforts residents can contribute to her recently set up GoFundMe page at : Madera Homeless Outreach. She can also be reached on FaceBook under the same name.
“The other way people can help is to not judge the homeless. Nobody ever starts out wanting to be homeless. It’s not a life anyone (rational) would really choose,” Gonzales said.