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Homeless Housing, Blackstone Merchants Clash. Leaders Explore Solutions.



Photo Credit/Valley Public Radio
Fresno leaders and business owners met at a town hall Monday to discuss crime and homelessness on Blackstone Avenue. (GV Wire File)
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About 100 business owners along Blackstone Avenue and residents from the area gathered at Fresno First Baptist Church this week to discuss problems in the area.

“The reason we’re meeting is for the public officials to hear directly from the people on the street. I think we had a disconnection because people in their office don’t know what’s going on in their street.”AJ Rassamni, executive director, Blackstone Merchant’s Association

Organized by executive director of the Blackstone Merchant’s Association AJ Rassamni, speakers brought up issues of public safety, crime, and the effect homeless shelters have had on businesses.

However, a Poverello House leader disputed claims that people living at a Blackstone Avenue transitional and emergency shelter hotel are committing crimes.

On the panel were Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Fresno councilmembers Tyler Maxwell, Annalisa Perea, and Nelson Esparza; Police Chief Paco Balderrama, Deputy Chief Michael Landon, Police Capt. Jennifer Horsford, City Attorney Andrew Janz, and Fresno Economic Development Director Lance Lippincott.

The Blackstone Merchant’s Association represents 350 businesses with 3,000 members, Rassamni said. Rassamni used to own the Great American Car Wash on Blackstone before it closed.

“The reason we’re meeting is for the public officials to hear directly from the people on the street,” Rassamni said. “I think we had a disconnection because people in their office don’t know what’s going on in their street.”

Blackstone merchants contend that this transitional/emergency housing shelter is increasing crime. However, the Poverello House, which operates the property, says that’s simply not the case. (GV Wire/Edward Smith)

Are Homekey Properties Bringing Crime?

With money from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Homekey, the city transformed five motels on the aptly-named Motel Drive into emergency shelters for homeless people throughout Fresno. The two remaining property owners did not accept offers from the city to sell, said Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer.

“Our options were, quite frankly, to look for other hotels in our city where there was an interest in selling and we wanted to convert into more housing,” Dyer said. “Blackstone is that place.”

The city purchased the former Clarion Pointe at Blackstone and Griffith avenues.

Half of the rooms at Clarion Pointe became transitional housing for people ready to leave shelters and find more permanent housing, Dyer said. The other half served as emergency shelters.

Negotiations to purchase the Travelodge at Blackstone Avenue and Saginaw Way are underway, Dyer said.

The city needed space for people ready to transition out of shelters into permanent housing. Many people may have housing vouchers ready, but there aren’t spaces available.

Business owners at the meeting said crime at their businesses increased following the motel’s opening on June 12.

“We’re trying to make it more beautiful on Blackstone, but the vandalism, they come and they break stuff up, they cut my gates and they steal building materials,” said Jeff Perritte, owner of White Pine Lumber on Blackstone Avenue, across the street from Clarion Pointe.

Perritte said he thinks stolen building materials are being used to build shelters.

Tony Ochinero and his family own the shopping center at Blackstone and Ashlan avenues where the Walmart is located.

Store management told him retail losses so far this year totaled $1.8 million, with camping equipment being a major section for loss.

Ochinero attributed some of the increase in crime to increased homelessness.

“It seems like it’s brought more here, it seems absurd and you must have a good reason, but this is not the area to bring them in,” Ochinero said.

Crime Increase Not Due to Clarion Pointe: Poverello House

Originally, the city located people staying near Blackstone Avenue to the Clarion Pointe.

But Dyer said some people staying there brought friends to the hotel. They then changed their strategy to move people from Blackstone Avenue to Parkway Avenue in southwest Fresno.

“The truth is we worked out a coordinated deal where we would purchase the Clarion for shelter and transitional housing and in return, we did not want to make a nuisance,” Dyer said.

Fresno leaders met Monday, Oct. 2 at Fresno First Baptist Church to discuss needs on Blackstone Avenue. (GV Wire/Edward Smith)

Sara Mirhadi, chief programs officer with Poverello House — the operator of Clarion Pointe — said there is no indication residents there are committing these crimes.

Residents at Clarion Pointe have to enter and exit through the main lobby where staff and security are present, Mirhadi said. Security escorts people to their rooms.

“There have been no reports of clients coming in with large amounts of items, catalytic converters, or other items,” Mirhadi said. “Staff at Clarion Pointe do routine room searches and have no reports of these types of items in the rooms.”

Clarion Pointe Giving Homeless ‘a Chance to Thrive’

Mirhadi said they have already seen residents of Clarion Pointe gain employment and permanent housing. The goal is to move people into housing in 90 days.

They have fatherhood classes, substance abuse support groups, individual and group therapy sessions, job development, and access to medical care.

“I hope the businesses on Blackstone Avenue will understand that everyone benefits when the city of Fresno invests in programs such as Clarion Pointe,” Mirhadi said in an email to GV Wire.

Mayor Touts Successes of Project Homekey

Since Project Offramp began in 2021 — the mayor’s effort to get people off of freeway embankments — the city has housed 2,100 people, Dyer said. But the city still has 1,700 people out on the streets.

“It’s complicated but we’re making progress,” Dyer said.

While the number of unsheltered people increased in 2023 compared to last year, the total homeless population decreased by 5.6%, according to the 2023 Point in Time Count.

Dyer said 76% of the people who accepted shelter and services on Parkway Avenue transitioned into either permanent housing or back with family.

“The challenge we’re facing today is many of the folks that are out there on the streets are the more chronic homeless and they also have, in many cases, a higher acuity level of mental health,” Dyer said.

CARE Courts

On Monday, California’s experiment with treating dangerous mental illness began in seven counties. Called CARE Courts — from the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment Act — those suffering from schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders can be compelled into treatment.

The seven initial counties include Glenn, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus, and both the city and county of San Francisco. Los Angeles County will introduce its CARE Courts in December. The rest of the state, including Fresno County, will follow in December 2024.

Beautification a Goal on Blackstone Avenue

Michelle Gonzalez, a sales associate at Javier’s Home Appliances, across the street from Clarion Pointe, said they were burglarized earlier this year.

Gonzalez asked for increased lighting and help cleaning up discarded mattresses and discarded refrigerators.

“I know you can’t do everything, but we need to make this place look like River Park. No one wants to shop down here,” Gonzalez said.

In 2022, an effort to create a PBID — Property Based Improvement District — went before property owners to clean up the area. Under a PBID, property owners agree to tax themselves to create a foundation to clean up and market an area, similar to that of the Downtown Fresno Partnership.

Property owners agree on how to spend the money, including for shared security, said councilmember Nelson Esparza.

However, COVID made getting a hold of property owners difficult, Esparza said. Additionally, they had trouble agreeing on boundaries and that quashed the original goal, Esparza said.

But the timing could be right to reopen discussions, Esparza said.

“Now we’re in a sort of post-COVIDd era where we think a PBID effort to take another run at it might work well,” Esparza said.

Council President Tyler Maxwell said there are some things that government does well and some things it doesn’t do well.

“My hope is that every year, we see improvement, whether that’s beautification, the safety of your businesses, or the opportunities of your businesses on Blackstone,” Maxwell said.

Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at