Tea Party questions homeless housing

About 30 people attended an Oakhurst/Coarsegold Tea Party meeting last week to listen, or air their concerns, about a homeless housing unit in Oakhurst scheduled to open soon.

The meeting was filled with varied, sometimes loudly-voiced criticisms, on issues such as potential misuse of taxpayer dollars or how to prevent substance abuse.

And in between it all, Eric Smrkovsky, a homeless applicant to the program washing dishes that evening at the Yosemite Gateway Restaurant, where the meeting was held, spoke about his path to overcome drug abuse and one day get a job in computer science to the crowd’s applause.

Jody Ketcheside, Deputy Regional Director for Turning Point of Central California, a nonprofit leasing the apartment building from a private owner using Housing Urban Development dollars, started the meeting by explaining the program.

Largely under critique from the audience was if the building, on River Park Road near China Creek, will successfully house seven single chronically homeless residents while under supervision of staff and cameras available through remote access 24/7. Surveys indicate 51 homeless people live in the Mountain Area, though the number could be higher, said Michael Baird, with Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church.

Ketcheside said through a nationwide model of providing housing first, followed with assistance in job applications or mental health and drug counseling, that Fresno and Madera counties have seen an 86% retention rate, or people who stay in the program.

She added, after a question about how many get jobs and are able to pay for their own housing, that an estimated 75% successfully follow through.

“By bringing this housing and services into the community, we’re able to help you in reducing the number of homeless on the streets,” Ketcheside said. “It has to start somewhere.”

Questions ranged from how Turning Point is funded to substance abuse policy, or whether there were alternatives such as establishing a homeless shelter at local churches.

Ketcheside said Turning Point is a nonprofit organization funded by government grants and private donors, rather than the conception it’s entirely funded through government funds.

For substance and alcohol abuse, both Ketcheside and Baird said all of it is prohibited at the property, but residents can’t be tracked off site.

“Sobriety is not a condition for housing,” Ketcheside said of how regular drug testing will not take place, “just like it’s not for any of us. But we don’t allow them to use on site and that makes a huge difference.”

One major issue was if Turning Point will prioritize homeless veterans at the unit as originally promised.

John Pero, a Vietnam veteran who heads the Oakhurst/Coarsegold chapter of the Tea Party, said he didn’t want to see a “bait and switch” take place.

“I want to make sure we don’t have a bait and switch, so we say we’re serving homeless but in reality, many of the people we’re serving are not veterans,” Pero said. “I don’t want to see our veterans exploited.”

“The priority is absolutely veterans,” Baird responded. “Right now, I only have two I can identify, and I’m encouraging them to apply for the program. Hopefully we can identify some other ones.”

“If your community has homeless veterans, they will be prioritized for housing and worked with intensely to help them get there,” Ketcheside added, along with a goal that, if possible, all the units will be filled with veterans.

Following additional questions and discussions, Baird then had Smrkovsky come forward.

Homeless for eight years while living out of his car, and sober for four months and three days, Smrkovsky said his goal was to learn computer science and hold a quality job as he attends community college.

“It’s not easy,” Smrkovsky said about freeing himself from drugs or alcohol. “It’s really not, but I’m doing everything I can.”

Smrkovsky said he didn’t want to leave the Mountain Area because his son stays in Ahwahnee, and he’s working to keep a home left to his family by his deceased mother.

Many questioned why Smrkovsky or other homeless couldn’t simply stay at a church, or find alternate routes to sustaining themselves.

“If someone in this room gave Eric a place to stay then we wouldn’t be putting him in this program,” Baird countered.

Smrkovsky later said he understood people’s criticisms against himself or other homeless.

“I get it, I mean, people usually don’t like to know they’re living next to someone who was homeless or anything like that,” Smrkovsky said. “It can probably be kind of scary. But I want to show them I’m more than just that. I think I will, and I hope it’ll help change their minds.”

Among other discussions, Ketcheside said there are currently no plans for additional homeless units in the Mountain Area at this time, and the housing is permanent, so theoretically any homeless resident could remain there as long as needed.