By: Joseph Geha
August 31, 2020 —
FREMONT — Following the lead of the Bay Area’s progressive northern cities, Fremont on Monday will become the first city in the southern part of the region to offer a one-stop “navigation center” for the homeless.
With hundreds of homeless people living in tents along streets and highway overpasses and sleeping in cars and RVs in parking lots and industrial frontage roads, city officials are counting on the center to get some of them back on their feet and on the track to permanent housing.
If the center proves a success, they hope, other nearby cities might follow suit.
“Execution is key,” Andy Gutierrez, a Santa Clara County public defender on that office’s homeless outreach team, said Friday in an interview.
“It is close to the South Bay, Fremont is a suburban community, and if it’s done correctly and the community sees that it by and large works, and it doesn’t draw in problems in the way that some of the navigation centers in San Francisco have, then I think the community concerns will be allayed,” he said.
“But that all hinges on having the correct staff who are properly trained” and bring a “trauma-informed” perspective to ensure the homeless people who navigate through the program are well-supported.
The navigation center — a complex of five portable buildings — is located on a parking lot directly behind City Hall, surrounded by fencing, some of which is covered with colorful artwork. It’s modeled after one that’s been operating in Berkeley since 2018.
Building the center and running it for three years will cost the city $7.7 million, according to officials. It’ll be operated by nonprofit Bay Area Community Services, which also runs the Berkeley navigation center and one that opened in Hayward last year, as well as homeless housing programs in Oakland.
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Though the nonprofit touted a roughly 80% success rate in moving people from its Berkeley center into permanent housing the first year it opened, some Fremont residents pushed back against the idea, saying the money could be better spent on rental subsidies for the working poor or other homeless support.
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Officials initially planned to house up to 45 homeless people for six months at a time while case managers would help find them permanent housing and connect them to crucially needed support services.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, only 25 residents will be allowed at first, to reduce the risk of their getting infected.
“The (navigation center) will help transition vulnerable, homeless community members by providing a clean, safe, calm, and flexible environment to rebuild their lives and intensely focus on finding stable permanent housing,” the city said in a statement.
Fremont has the third-largest homeless population in Alameda County, behind Oakland and Berkeley. The number of homeless people in the city rose nearly 27% from 479 in 2017 to 608 last year, according to the latest homeless point-in-time count, city staff said.
Alameda County as a whole saw a 43% increase in that time frame, and homeless experts typically consider the numbers to be an undercount.
City Councilman Raj Salwan said he is “excited” about the center’s grand opening on Monday and hopes the center will be something the city can be proud of.
“This will be a pilot (navigation center) for Fremont and an opportunity to look at our data points to ensure that it works the way we intend to,” Salwan said.
“I’m proud of our city council for their action in embracing this (center) and saying yes in my backyard, which is city hall,” he said.
Last fall, the council spent months winnowing down a list of possible locations including the Niles district, North Fremont and Decoto Road, a process that saw hundreds of people storm its meetings to protest against having a center in their neighborhoods At a meeting where the current site was discussed, tensions reached such a fever pitch that some people banged on City Hall windows and shouted over other speakers.
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In September, the council finally settled on placing the center behind City Hall, in the heart of the city’s budding downtown.
Most council members said they favored the downtown location for its access to BART, the Fremont Family Resource center, grocery stores and potential employers.
“We are hoping that we will have good outcomes, and the measurement will be the ultimate placement of our homeless community members into permanent, safe and stable housing,” Suzanne Shenfil, Fremont’s human services director, said in an email Friday.
She said the nonprofit will also help residents at the center find employment, “which will be especially challenging in the COVID environment.”
Shenfil said housing people is a regional issue, and while Fremont has shown the political will to tackle it, more help will be needed from the whole region.
“We are especially concerned that homelessness is growing, and so we have to continue to look for solutions and partners,” Shenfil said. “This is not our ultimate answer, but it’s a big one in our growing tool chest.”
This article courtesy of The Mercury News
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