Residents may have noticed that favorite gathering spots for the homeless - the Oakhurst Community Park, the banks of the Fresno River, the barren lot next to the Chevron Station, or improvised encampments on private property - seem emptier nowadays.
That’s because, according to Madera County Sheriff’s Sgt. Larry Rich with Problem Oriented Policing (POP), there are only about 20 homeless he knows about and deals with currently in the Oakhurst area.
“Due to the great community effort, and Sheriff Varney making sure I go out and do my job, most of the homeless have left, and know better than to hang out in town,” Rich said. “Some have gone to Mariposa, some have gone home to families, some are receiving assistance from Michael Baird with Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, and four or five have pooled resources to rent an apartment.”
“I have seen a lot more of the homeless working over the last few months,” Baird added. “With all the dead trees and weed-eating to be done, they are able to find some work this time of year. Although many have recently been able to get off the streets and are either living out of their cars, crashing with friends, or are back with family, most of these situations are very tenuous and may not last.”
For the working homeless, the ones having to sleep in their cars, Rich refers them to Baird or to the Social Services office in Oakhurst. With permanent housing being one of the greatest obstacles the homeless face, Serenity Village apartments has proven to be a successful venture so far - a project Rich said both he and Varney enthusiastically support.
Rich added he has a good relationship with the homeless and believes most aren’t troublemakers, though the trash they frequently produce is profoundly troublesome.
“What I have found is that the sooner I find them,” Rich continued, “the quicker I can get to them so they can’t develop those big trash dumps. If they camp in a spot for more than two to three weeks, there’s so much trash that it’s ridiculous, and that’s a major problem.”
Rich is aware of the fact that the homeless don’t appreciate the disruption he causes to their living arrangements in an effort to reduce, or better yet, eliminate the enormous mounds of trash they tend to leave behind.
Even though Thomas C., who prefers to call himself “houseless,” rather than “homeless,” admits that some of what is being tossed out is trash, he insists some is not.
“How is throwing away our belongings helpful to us,” said Thomas, who has lived on the streets the better part of 30 years. “It only makes our situation worse. I even know of some homeless who have been cited for illegal camping. I don’t call it illegal camping - I call it trying to survive.”
Originally from Los Angeles, his family moved to Oakhurst when he was 17. Once he turned 18, he said he was kicked out of the house.
Thomas has worked off and on over the decades as a cab driver, cook, and for 10 years, he did tree work until the owner of the tree service retired a year ago.
He currently takes one day at a time, managing to collect about $100 monthly by recycling and doing odd jobs. He’s also hoping his mother sends him money for his 48th birthday.
His constant companion Brutus, a 10-year-old lab mix, was born with cataracts and has been blind since he was 2.
“I’m the black sheep of the family. When I ask for a little cash, I get yelled at, or they say I’ve burned those bridges ... but aren’t there other bridges I’ve built,” Thomas said, referring to the remodeling work he did on his mother’s home prior to her recent move to Oklahoma.
As for the number of homeless in the area, Thomas said, “Well, I guess it depends on who’s doing the counting. Some say there’s 40-50 ... I know of probably 12.”
Angel and Rory Ramos fall into his count of a dozen. The couple, along with their dog, Devil, have been homeless for several years.
They were once business owners of R&R Landscaping, but life changed drastically when Angel, 45, was helping out a friend whose home burned down in the Junction Fire.
“He asked me to tell the homeless, who had been camping on his property, to leave,” Angel said. “One thing led to another, and one of the homeless ended up bashing me in the face with an ax handle.”
Angel suffered five fractures, and even though he later tried to return to landscape work, he said he would often pass out on the job.
Eventually, with no income coming in, the couple lost their home. They now depend on food stamps, and Angel is in the process of applying for disability.
While they could live with Rory’s parents, Angel said her mother has stage IV cancer and her father is bedridden, so they would rather not. And, because the homeless apartments in Oakhurst don’t take couples, living there isn’t a viable option either.
That brings up a sore point for Thomas, who said the homeless, despite his reluctance, think of him as their spokesperson.
“There are no shelters up here,” Thomas said. “There won’t be any state or federal money for that until Oakhurst is incorporated ... and that isn’t ever going to happen.”
Thomas then asked, “Why are singles living in those homeless two-bedroom apartments? Why is that second bedroom going to waste when there are people still living on the streets?”
While Baird would love to see Serenity Village serve a greater number of homeless, that isn’t feasible at this time.
“The reason we’re using two-room apartments as single occupancy is because that is all the current grant allows,” Baird explained. “Double occupancy apartments take significantly more oversight and supervision, and when you have a roommate, the potential for problems escalates tremendously.”
“Right now the apartments have just eight hours of on-site supervision per day,” he continued. “If we were to go to double occupancy, we would need to have 24-hour on-site management. That is three times the staffing, and the HUD grant that was obtained to run the apartments does not make this possible. Perhaps as we re-apply for more funding in years to come, this may change. It’s tempting to try to go ahead and fill the second rooms since they are there, but doing so without adequate supervision and management could put the entire program at risk.”
Sgt. Rich has an idea that he plans on pitching to Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler in the near future.
It’s a concept other areas have tried, with positive results; the county deeds a parcel of land for a homeless encampment. Rich is shooting for a single-acre parcel. There would be set rules, with officers making regular checks to ensure those rules are being followed.
At least one Southern California city has deeded land near an airport to the homeless, and the results have proven to be a step in the right direction.
Should this come to fruition in Oakhurst, the question then becomes, where that land would be located.
“Although I haven’t spoken with Larry directly about the idea of a county deed for a parcel of land, I think something like that is worth pursuing,” Baird said. “With the success of some of the other initiatives we’re doing, it’s conceivable that there’s enough community trust and support for something like that. A year or two ago, such a conversation would never have come to the table.”
Baird believes there’s a shift occurring when it comes to addressing the problem of homelessness, with the focus moving toward problem solving, rather than concentrating on the problem itself.
“I see more folks giving individuals on the streets a second chance, a job opportunity, or some other hand up,” Baird said. “It is these individual, one-on-one interactions and relationships that will lead to resolution and fullness in the lives of those who are homeless.”
Baird also credits concentrated efforts by area businesses, churches, organizations, along with the sheriff’s office, social services and behavioral health departments collaborating and working together as pivotal to making beneficial strides forward.
“It’s this sort of collaboration that that will bring long-term solutions for these individuals,” Baird added, “and for our community as a whole.”