A zoning move taken by the City of Bishop earlier this week sparked concern from residents over the potential opening of homeless shelters in their neighborhoods.
As mandated by state law, the city must allow zoning for emergency shelters within the city limits. Although there are no plans to develop any such facility, citizens expressed trepidation that the city was giving a greenlight to the development of homeless shelters.
They specifically objected to having a homeless shelter located in an area near children and the elderly, but stopped short of actually saying what threat such a facility posed.
As one city planner said, there seems to be some confusion on the part of some citizens as to what exactly the city is doing and a general lack of understanding about the homeless.
A public hearing was held at Monday’s Bishop City Council meeting to hear citizen concerns about the zoning.
Public Services Officer Gary Schley explained the need for the re-zoning ordinance, number 534 and 535.
He said the California Department of Housing and Community Development has ordered every jurisdiction in the state to provide for the emergency shelters. Providing for emergency shelters is also part of the City’s 2009 Housing Element requirements and makes the city eligible for a variety of grant opportunities.
He also explained that there is no party with plans to build a shelter anytime soon.
Council member Jeff Griffiths told members of the audience that the rezoning is, “just a hoop to go through in order to qualify for Community Development Block Grants that the city uses” to help finance a variety of programs and projects, such as low-income housing and tools for Public Works.
The re-zoning affects an area basically considered an over-lay zone, a combination of residential and commercial, where the emergency shelter zone will be located. The zone has to meet certain requirements, such as being close to social resources and practical services, such as a grocery store.
The zoning overlay for emergency shelters in Bishop will be located on the north and south sides of MacIver Street and east of Main Street, starting behind existing business properties and running to the canal. The area is more than 30 acres in size.
Within that zone is the property where the Salvation Army plans to build a larger facility, as announced in August 2010, but there has been no further development on that property. This property is adjacent to the city-owned Sunrise Senior Trailer Park.
Salvation Army Envoys Kim and Tim Brown were not available for comment, but Rob Bowers, representative from the Salvation Army, said Wednesday that there are still no immediate plans to build at the site due to financial constraints.
Public comments at the council meeting centered on the location of the zone and language in the ordinance, which states, “‘Emergency shelter’ means housing for minimal supportive services for homeless persons that is limited to occupancy of six months or less by a homeless person.”
One resident of the park said her grandchildren visit and they sometimes walk to the park, and she was against the location of a “homeless shelter” near her home.
Another park resident, Bev Siegler, explained that many of the residents are newly widowed, and she too was opposed to the location.
Schley said by phone Tuesday that the purpose of the shelters are to help people who have no home, be it due to their own choices or from conditions beyond their control. He said that he understands people can be leery of something they don’t know or understand, such as the homeless population. And, people generally want to protect and are concerned about their surroundings.
Schley said that at an open house and informational forum on the shelters held Feb. 8, some local homeless people and counselors from the county health department were in attendance. Schley said they came to show others that the small homeless community in the area are “good people” – non-violent but either by their own choice or hard times, mental illness or a combination of factors, these people do not have permanent homes.
Director of Inyo County Health and Human Services Jean Turner said Tuesday, “The homeless are very misunderstood in our society.”
She added, “A common public worry is that homeless can be dangerous.”
She said that the county and HHS have “a finger on the pulse” of the mentally-ill homeless and are aware of their mental health diagnoses and keep a close eye on them.
Turner added that while the county does not have any specific programs addressing the homeless, she said that through a variety of programs offered, resources are made available to the local homeless population.
There are the Wellness Centers, one in Bishop one in Lone Pine, that offer laundry facilities, and showers. Turner explained that the centers also encourage those with an interest to find and maintain a wage earning job. HHS also works with local landlords to try and find housing for the displaced. HHS will sometimes bring food and sandwiches to the homeless at the park.
“There have always been homeless people in the area,” Turner added. And, with the tourist rate of the area and its high number of campgrounds, she said people would probably be surprised by the amount of people who look like they’re camping but who are actually homeless and living out of a tent.
The city’s General Plan states, “According to the Inyo County Mental Health Director, at any point in time in 2004, there were approximately 25 homeless individuals in Inyo County” and, approximately five homeless individuals in the city proper.
The element also reports that the Inyo Mono Advocates for Community Action provides services to the homeless. IMACA reports that the homeless population peaks in the warmer months with 30-40 individuals living near the river and 30-40 more staying at area campgrounds.
A natural disaster can create a homeless problem, as evident from reports of post-hurricane New Orleans. In May 2008, the New York Times reported that the homeless population had tripled since Hurricane Katrina. Many survivors of that natural disaster had been without a home or shelter since 2005.
The official comment period for the emergency shelter zoning has ended but the council will read the ordinance for a second time and public comments are welcome at that time.