County, cities share progress

Problem of the homeless at least partially solved

Leaders of the county and its cities cited good cooperation and the progress made on multiple topics such as homelessness, regional transportation needs, and enhancing economic development opportunities, as well as a new animal control and animal shelter facility, after working together on those issues the last year.

The theme of a four-hour meeting Saturday morning — the officials’ second annual intergovernmental agency workshop at the Madera Municipal Golf Course conference room — was unity, progress and “Rising Tides Raise All Ships”.

The issues with the homeless — Madera County supervisors and the mayors and council members of Madera and Chowchilla had initially come together in 2017 to collaborate on the countywide homeless issues including growing homeless encampments in all jurisdictions, and decided a more unified approach was needed.

At the 2017 meeting the topic of chronic and growing homelessness had galvanized alarmed residents to speak up about their concerns, the effects the homeless had on their neighborhoods and to demand change.

Residents at the 2018 meeting noted the absence of the many homeless men and women once crowding and blighting the Fresno riverbed, and inquired about what had become of them.

The Madera County Sheriff’s Department, and The Madera and Chowchilla Police Departments, in cooperation with public and private social service groups, said they began ramping up and coordinating their efforts to identify each homeless person and attempting to get that person in contact with services such as housing, or rehabilitation programs for alcohol and drug treatment. They had also increased their enforcement of the trespassing and no-camping laws, they said, along with consistently clearing the encampments to reduce impacts on surrounding residents, and ultimately jailing any homeless that had warrants or had been committing crimes. In most cases shelter beds could be found for them, they said.

In cases where the homeless were trying to return to their out-of-the-area families or out-of-state homes, money for bus or train tickets was raised and donated.

An unknown number of the longer-term homeless refuse all services, and have been found dead of substance abuse, exposure and or other chronic illnesses out in alleys, fields or in the riverbed, according to Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney.

Authorities at Madera County Behavioral Health estimate that Madera County, including the cities of Madera and Chowchilla currently has between 500 to 800 homeless people, most in shelters or programs, with about 300 of those chronically living on the streets.

The lobbYing effort to widen State Route 99 — The quest to widen the 99 from Avenue 12 to Avenue 17 had also made good progress, according to supervisor Brett Frazier, after the new governmental group had approached the State of California and CalTrans as one, demanding the dangerous and frequently clogged interstate be widened to 3, 4 or 5 lanes throughout Madera County.

“It was a huge win,” to get the project on the state’s planning radar, Frazier said, but now the governments still have to get funding for it, he said. Other major connecting roadways are in the initial, longer-term planning stages.

High Speed Rail — All parties expressed frustration with the yet-to-be-determined route of the High Speed Rail train project. Chowchilla Mayor Dennis Haworth said speaking as one voice had definitely helped when dealing with HSR as well.

“Chowchilla was fighting for it’s survival, so we sued (HSR) and at least got them out of the immediate area,” of the city limits, Haworth said. “But there is much more to be done,” with the ultimate positioning of the Y connector and the location of the large, heavy maintenance HSR yard yet to be determined, he said.

Major change looming for Madera County — All agreed that once the location of HSR was finalized in north central Madera County, likely in the next few years, Madera County would change drastically because the cities and county would be inundated with people relocating from the coast and commuting, many new non-agricultural jobs and a large infusion of out-of-area cash. Others weren’t so optimistic and compared it to being “steamrolled”.

HSR authorities have also reportedly said the current, new AMTRAK station on Road 26 north of Madera city limits would likely be closed and moved closer to the Y junction after that area is up and running.

Coordinated Economic Development — The group also enthusiastically supported current Madera County Economic Development Council Executive Director Bobby Kahn to help coordinate any future joint efforts and assist the county and both cities to help bring new businesses and development to all of Madera County.

A New Animal Facility and Shelter — Madera County Animal Services Director Kirsten Gross spoke of what she said was the need for a new unified and coordinated city-county animal control facility, along with a new animal shelter and adoption facility along Road 28. The concepts received endorsement and support from Madera County Supervisor and Chairman Tom Wheeler, Supervisor Brett Frazier, and Madera City Councilwoman Cece Gallegos. The project is currently in the initial planning stages, according to Wheeler.