Recent media reports claim that Fresno has the worst homeless rate per capita in the United States.
Data reviewed by GV Wire doesn’t rank Fresno No. 1 for homelessness, but it paints a grim picture of the challenges ahead for getting more people off the street.
“Is homelessness the biggest crisis that we’re facing? Yes, it trumps all other crises. And if that is the case, that means we can’t prioritize special interest groups over our need to build as much housing as possible.” — Matthew Dildine, CEO, The Mission
Nonprofit think-tank Brookings Institute ranks Fresno and Madera counties No. 13 in the nation for homelessness, based on 2022 data. Brookings used the annual Point-In-Time count conducted by Continuums of Care across the country.
Similarly, a new report from finance company WalletHub ranks Fresno as the third neediest U.S. city.
“Fresno, CA is the third-neediest city in part due to the fact that it has the highest homelessness rate in the nation,” a report from finance company WalletHub. “Unfortunately, life for the city’s homeless population is difficult because the city has also instituted laws against things like begging, loitering, and sleeping in public places.”
The city is No. 26 in health and safety among the nation’s 182 largest cities, according to WalletHub. Economic factors in Fresno were the second worst.
WalletHub analysts developed the ranking using child and adult poverty rates, unemployment rates, homelessness rates, and credit scores, among other factors to determine the economic state. Food insecurity, the number of uninsured, and crime rates determined health and safety rates.
The area’s poverty, construction difficulties, and wrongly-aimed strategies compound to make the problem worse, said Matthew Dildine, CEO of The Mission, a Fresno housing nonprofit that works closely with homeless people.
“Our challenges in Fresno are more unique for a variety of different reasons that kind of create this perfect storm of variables that make it so that we are in a very, very difficult location, a very, very difficult region to really tackle and come up with solutions to solve homelessness,” said Dildine.
West Coast Cities Lag Behind the East Coast in Providing Shelter
The federal government mandates that Continuums of Care conduct a “Point-in-Time” count at least every other year.
The 4,216 unhoused people volunteers counted in 2022 yielded a rate of 359 for every 100,000 people in Fresno and Madera counties. More recent counts show 4,493 homeless people.
In comparison, San Francisco — the highest on the list — had 959 homeless people per 100,000 in 2022.
Where Fresno falters, like so many other West Coast cities, is with available shelter.
Fifty-five percent of homeless people don’t have shelter. San Francisco has 57% of its homeless population living without shelter. San Jose has an unsheltered rate of 77%.
In comparison, New York City, with 742 homeless people per 100,000, has only 6% going unsheltered. Only 3% of homeless people in Boston don’t have shelter.
Dildine said California’s “Housing First” strategy prioritized the construction of permanent housing, away from shelters.
Fresno’s shelters also suffer from overcrowding with more than 1.5 people per room, according to WalletHub.
The cost to build impedes getting housing, Dildine said. The area’s high poverty rates also mean that not only are people more vulnerable, but there isn’t as much philanthropic money to work with compared to other areas.
That means housing projects have to rely on government money. And government money comes with a lot of red tape, Dildine said.
When using government dollars, California requires projects to pay workers what is called prevailing wage — a mandated minimum hourly rate.
That rate can increase a project’s cost by 35% to 70%, Dildine said. One quote from a union builder for a campus to be owned by The Mission came in for $400,000. Three quotes from non-union shops came in under $100,000.
The price tag to convert 59 hotel rooms of the Quality Inn at Fresno and Bullard avenues into permanent housing would have cost roughly $400,000 a unit. Dildine attributed much of that cost to prevailing wage. He said one of his projects cost $150,000 a unit.
Dildine said if solving homelessness truly is California’s priority, then that should trump interests that mandate prevailing wage on affordable housing projects.
“Is homelessness the biggest crisis that we’re facing? Yes, it trumps all other crises,” Dildine said. “And if that is the case, that means we can’t prioritize special interest groups over our need to build as much housing as possible.”
Fresno City Council Votes Down Affordable Housing
Last month, Fresno City Council denied a zoning change that would have allowed the Quality Inn to be converted into 59 units of long-term affordable housing.
Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld and Miguel Arias noted the project’s proximity to a cannabis dispensary and a liquor store, as well as the project’s $22.5 million price tag for 59 units.
Katie Wilbur, executive director with RH Community Builders, a co-applicant on the project, said qualified locations are limited. The council had previously approved the location but a majority of members changed their minds after numerous businesses objected.
The $16.5 million in Project HomeKey money from the state of California will have to be returned.
Homelessness Rises by 12% Nationwide
While the homeless population in Fresno and Madera counties increased by 6.6%, according to the 2023 Point-In-Time count, the number in the city decreased by 5.6%.
The decrease comes from an unprecedented investment by the city administration according to Phil Skei, assistant director of planning and development with the city of Fresno.
The city dedicated $40 million of federal pandemic relief dollars to the construction of affordable housing units. While national and state homeless rates are increasing, Skei pointed out the city’s rate dropped.
“Nationally, over the last year, homelessness (rose) by 12.1%. That’s national, across the country,” said Skei. “California, we saw homelessness increase by 5.8%. And so, in a state and in a nation where homelessness is rising, the city of Fresno over the same period of time has reduced homelessness by 5.6%.”
However, Point-in-Time Counts found a decrease in homeless people who have shelter. Skei attributed that to people transitioning from projects such as Project HomeKey to permanent housing.
Across the U.S., about 653,000 people are homeless, the most since the Point-in-Time count began in 2007. The total in the January count represents an increase of about 70,650 compared with a year earlier.
“This data underscores the urgent need for support for proven solutions and strategies that help people quickly exit homelessness and that prevent homelessness in the first place,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge said in a prepared statement.
California’s homeless strategy doesn’t help families, Dildine said. California’s marquee HomeKey Project buys single-room hotel buildings, which aren’t suited for families. That means a lack of housing for children.
“One thing I tell people all the time is, look, yesterday’s homeless youth is tomorrow’s homeless adult,” Dildine said.
Dildine said unless major changes come at the state level when it comes to housing construction, the problem will only worsen. The rate of homeless is growing faster than housing units can be built, he said.
“The government funding model is so ridiculously crazy, stupid expensive that we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time picking a ton of money to build barely anything,” Dildine said.