State-funding efforts to shelter unhoused residents in converted motels could be a game-changer for Motel Drive, an area of Fresno that city leaders say has long been overrun by drugs, human trafficking, and prostitution.
Local city leaders say Project Homekey has been a success in Fresno, providing shelter for about 1,500 people over the past 18 months. Not only have the funds helped shelter the city’s unhoused residents, but they also provided the opportunity to invest in the transformation of Motel Drive, said Councilmember Miguel Arias in an interview with The Bee.
“I’ve always had a plan since 2019 to clean up this whole corridor, but we’ve never had the resources,” said Arias, who in May of 2019 initiated an ordinance to require inspection of the neglected motels.
“Then, the pandemic hit, and we found ourselves with no shelter beds,” said Arias, adding that Fresno historically only had 10 beds a year to shelter the city’s unhoused population.
That’s when the city decided to use a majority of the $35 million in Project Homekey funds to acquire four motels along Motel Drive, a stretch of motels on Parkway Drive along Highway 99 that city leaders have described as hotbeds for prostitution, drug, and sex trafficking.
Federal CARES Act funds have also enabled the city to acquire and convert additional motels on Motel Drive for shelter and affordable housing.
“Project Homekey has been a saving grace for this city,” said Arias. Without Homekey, Arias said, the city “wouldn’t have made a dent,” sheltering unhoused residents during the pandemic.
Housing advocacy groups that have long criticized the city’s sheltering efforts agree that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Homekey has been a success in Fresno but said the program remains too small and said local leaders need to do more to address homelessness and affordable housing in Fresno.
Project Homekey sites at capacity in Fresno
The Fresno Housing Authority owns and manages four of the five Homekey sites, sheltering about 507 people as of this week. About 55 adults this week were living at Golden State Triage Center (formerly Parkside Inn), 135 adults at Sun Lodge (formerly Days Inn), and 83 adults at Journey Home (formerly Welcome Inn).
About 100 adults and 134 children were staying in the transitional housing center, Step Up On 99 (formerly Motel 99), and the city has applied for another $3 million to finish the conversion of the complex, which will include more park space for the residents.
Each community has 24-hour on-site security, laundry facilities, community rooms, and private offices for on-site staff and residents to hold meetings. Case managers and social workers support residents that need mental health and drug rehabilitation services, and Fresno Unified educators provide homeless student services. Swimming pools have been converted into dog parks for residents with pets.
The fifth Homekey project is located at The Crossroads Village shelter on Blackstone Avenue, managed by RH Community Builders, and is home to 165 households.
As a next step, the city will convert the renovated motels into affordable housing and operate the sites for the next five years. Due to the lack of affordable housing for residents, there’s no limit on the amount of time people can stay at the Homekey sites.
Both Arias and the Fresno Housing Authority confirmed that the available Project Homekey shelters at or near 100% capacity.
Federal funds used to acquire more motels on Motel Drive in Fresno
Furthering the plan to transform Motel Drive, the city also acquired two additional motels using federal CARES Act funding: the Travel Inn & Suite and the Valley Inn.
On Thursday, the Travel Inn opened 33 of its 57 units for emergency shelter under the management of RH Community Builders. The remaining 24 units will be available on Aug. 1, confirmed Arias.
The Valley Inn, which is currently undergoing renovations, will be available on Aug. 1 with approximately 80 units.
Arias confirmed that negotiations are underway for the city to acquire two more motels on Motel Drive. Arias said, eventually, he hopes to see the city take over all of the motels on Motel Drive to convert them into affordable housing that will look “like any other apartment complex” that are part of the neighboring residential community.
But the choice to place all of the Homekey sites along Motel Drive has drawn criticism from local homeless advocates. Critics are concerned about the decision to place families in an area plagued with drugs and sex trafficking.
Arias said he shares those concerns for residents’ safety and well-being and is aware of the illicit activity at the neighboring motels. He pointed out that the location of the family shelter, Step Up On 99, was intentionally secluded from the other motel locations.
To help keep the area safe, Arias said that the city recently approved $250,000 for the police department to beef up patrols at night in the Motel Drive area.
Affordable housing problems plaguing Fresno, rest of state
While local leaders laud the city’s Project Homekey as a success, they acknowledge that the city needs to do more to support families and individuals experiencing homelessness.
“The success [of Project Homekey] feels good, but we know we still have a lot of work to do,” said Doreen Eley, assistant director of Special Programs at Fresno Housing Authority, in an email to The Bee.
Patience Milrod, executive director of Central California Legal Services, said she applauds the city’s efforts to use state and federal dollars to “keep low-income renters housed, and to find homes for the un-housed.”
But, Milrod said, it’s not enough.
She said Fresno is “long overdue” for “coherent, citywide policies that incentivize and support affordable housing.” She also said that an affordable housing strategy must “involve investment of the city’s own resources long into the foreseeable future.”
According to a recent 2021 Affordable Housing Needs Report, more than 36,000 low-income households are without affordable housing in Fresno County. This affordable housing shortage comes at a time that Fresno home prices are at an all-time high. In Fresno County, the median price of a single-family home in May 2021 was $361,500, an increase of more than 22% compared to May 2020.
“A bigger need than anything else quite frankly is affordable housing,” said Eley. “Not just for the homeless, for everyone.”
Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.