Fresno County winding down COVID help for people experiencing homelessness

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fresno County is winding down its efforts to help people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic and examining whether its strategies are working.

The county has contracted for more than 400 beds as of February 9, but the county administrator's office is planning to eliminate all their temporary COVID beds by the end of June.

The Crossroads Village in central Fresno is one of the lasting changes the county has made over the last year, with a $15 million grant helping to convert the former hotel into housing to move almost 170 people off the street.

Renting abandoned rooms and emergency trailers helped Fresno County get roofs over the heads of hundreds of people experiencing homelessness without putting them in congregate settings where COVID-19 can spread rapidly.

Homeless advocates say it's been helpful, but the $18 million investment hasn't really solved much.

"There are people waiting and constantly asking us outreach workers for available shelter beds --many times with nothing available even with the new shelters - including those on the highways who tend to be demonized and scapegoated, who have nowhere else to go," said advocate Brandi Nuse-Villegas of We Are Not Invisible.

She asked county supervisors to keep finding safe locations and find out why retention is low at a lot of the shelters.

County administrators say they've helped about 1,500 people since last March, but it's a lot of the same people rotating in and out. The number has stayed about the same since August.

Supervisor Steve Brandau asked if the strategy of converting hotels to housing for people experiencing homelessness has been successful.

"It has been successful," said Sonia Delarosa of the CAO's office. "One of the biggest problems we have though is sustainability. So, when we're looking at how long we're going to be able to have these in place, we have to think about how we're going to be able to support the people that are in those beds."

A lot of those people need other services so the program can be expensive, and funding from one-time sources, including the CARES Act, is temporary.

But some of the recent investments will provide permanent solutions - such as the county creating Crossroads Village and the city of Fresno and the Fresno Housing Authority teaming up to buy up hotels on Motel Drive.

Still, county social services director Delfino Neira says he's afraid that post-COVID, the county could lose the momentum it had before, when it had reduced the homeless population by about 45% over ten years.

"We will lose what was gained before and the problems these folks are experiencing will still be there," Neira said. "It will be more endemic and it will be more difficult to help them."

For now, the county plans to end contracts for half their COVID beds by the end of March and the rest of them by the end of June.

To do any more, they'll need to find new funding sources.
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