Candidates for the Fresno City Council’s empty seat say one issue is consistently among the top concerns expressed by voters: the human suffering and public unease caused by homelessness.
The city has more money than ever to spend on the problem, thanks to its share of a one-time injection of $500 million in state funds approved last year by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to address homelessness. The community’s share of that money is $13 million; the city of Fresno received $3 million and $9 went to Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, which manages homeless programs on a county level. More state funding will be coming from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget, as well.
Fresno’s controversial “no camping” ordinance, passed in 2017 and designed to prevent homeless encampments from taking root, remains on the books, though it’s been tied up in legal battles since last fall. And the challenge of homelessness shows no signs of abating; an annual, federally required survey showed the number of homeless in Fresno increased 16% from 2018 to 2019.
How does homelessness resonate in the city council’s District 2? Three of the five candidates hoping to represent the northwest Fresno district sat down last month for a question-and-answer forum presented by GV Wire and CMAC. Attorney Jared Gordon, business owner Mike Karbassi, and special-needs therapist Oscar Sandoval were asked about how the city has handled homelessness, and what they would do themselves.
Gordon: ‘A Tremendous Amount of Concern’ in District 2
Two candidates, business owner Lawrence Garcia and attorney George Herman, chose not to participate in the forum. A special election to fill the District 2 seat is scheduled for Aug. 13.
“There is a tremendous amount of concern about homelessness both in the district and I think across the entire city,” Gordon said.
Gordon said he supports opening shelters and transitional housing throughout the city. “There was a time long ago where homeless were largely concentrated in downtown Fresno. And that allowed us to forget about them, sadly,” he said. “But today we need the services to meet where the homeless people are. And I think that’s something that the city has sadly forgotten.”
New shelters scheduled to open soon in the city are indeed outside the Fresno core. A 50-bed triage center at Clinton Avenue and Highway 99, in the refurbished Hacienda Hotel building, is opening soon, operated by Fresno County Mental Health Services. A 30-bed triage in southeast Fresno, run by Turning Point of Fresno, is scheduled to open this month. Another Turning Point triage center with 37 beds is set to open in August on Golden State Boulevard.
Asked if a homeless shelter should be located in District 2, Gordon replied, “Absolutely. I think it’s appropriate and now necessary for us to have some kind of homeless services provided in every district in Fresno.”
Sandoval: Give the Homeless a Place to Go
Sandoval said he brought up that question while knocking on doors in the district, and noted that many were “apprehensive” about the idea. “The next thing I’ll say to them is, it’s better that (the homeless are) in an environment where they can get help. They know where they need to go rather than just walking around our neighborhoods.”
Taking the measure of his constituents was Karbassi’s first concern. “Whatever we do with land use in the district … I’m gonna go to my residents first and talk to them. Because we have to mitigate any concerns residents have. That’s my No. 1 responsibility, and if we can do that then we’ll locate one in District 2.”
Karbassi noted there are several makeshift homeless encampments in District 2, and that the district’s residents “want something done right now.” He said it is possible to enforce the no-camping ordinance “compassionately and responsibly.”
Karbassi: ‘Don’t Want to Reinvent the Wheel’
“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel when it comes to homelessness. I want to look and see what other communities have done,” Karbassi said. He supports the idea of a “low-barrier,” government-sanctioned encampment with solutions for personal hygiene such as handwashing stations. He said the encampment could serve as a triage center, where staff could determine short- and long-term needs, such as drug treatment or transitional housing.
Sandoval said he supports a “multi-pronged” approach to homeless that includes providing several levels of housing, addressing mental health issues, and treating drug addiction. “I think the first thing we have to do is remember that they are human,” Sandoval said. “I think homelessness kind of takes that humanity away, and you kind of just see them as an object.”
Sandoval said he doesn’t support the city’s no-camping ordinance, calling it “a bridge too far.”
Gordon said he is a “strong supporter” of the no-camping ordinance. He sees homelessness as a two-way street, where those in need should be treated with dignity, while the homeless shouldn’t be allowed to infringe on the rights of others by trespassing or damaging property. “But in order to do that we need to build housing and at least some kind of shelter that allows the homeless — with dogs, with children — to come.”