Multi-million dollar legal tenant protection plan could reduce Fresno homelessness, save taxpayers millions

City Council is examining how legal assistance could help prevent the problem of homelessness even before it starts.
FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fresno's new mayor Jerry Dyer says tackling homelessness is one of his first priorities and the city council is examining how legal assistance could help prevent the problem before it starts.

They're looking at a multi-million dollar project that could potentially save taxpayers even more than they spend.

Before they lived on the streets or along freeways, a lot of people experiencing homelessness had somewhere to live, and something went wrong.

"Often, one of the first steps to displacement is eviction and so we're hoping that if folks are able to stay in their home, they're not finding themselves homeless," said Alex Alvarado of Faith in the Valley.

Evictions are on a moratorium during the pandemic, but in a normal year, more than 3,000 renters end up in Fresno County courts for eviction proceedings.

And the deck is usually stacked against the renters, who make up more than half of all Fresno residents.

"What we've seen is that in court proceedings, less than 1% of renters are going into those proceedings with legal representation," Alvarado said.

Alvarado and Ivanka Saunders from the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability teamed up on a proposal for the Fresno City Council to consider a Right to Counsel.

The program would make sure everyone in court for an eviction case gets an attorney to protect their rights.

They estimate it would cost about $5.7 million a year to help people with regularly scheduled clinics, collaborate with city code enforcement to conduct tenancy risk assessments, and make sure renters know if they're eligible for financial assistance.

"We know that it works by the case studies and research that has been done in other cities like Baltimore," Saunders said.

A cost-benefit analysis shows Baltimore saved $17.5 million with a similar-sized program.

Los Angeles and San Francisco have also gotten significant returns on their investments in Right to Counsel programs.

"You think about the costs that go into encampments, the effort we see our city having to try to fix it from the front end on the ground," Saunders said. "You combine that with the cost savings of what you will see in the court system as well."

There's no timeline yet for city council to vote on a Right to Counsel, but as soon as next week there could be federal COVID money available for the program.
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