Avis Braggs used to be able to walk around the corner to meet with her caseworker at the Fresno County Department of Social Services’ West Fresno Regional Center.

On occasions when her 12-year old grandson went with her, he used the county library — which shares a lobby with the social services office — while she met her caseworker.

Now Braggs, who also has a disability, must travel about 10 miles for 16 minutes, if she can get a ride from a neighbor who owns a car, or catch two buses for about 1 hour 13 minutes to get to the new, centralized social services center in southwest Clovis.

If she misses the bus — which is scheduled hourly but is often irregular, according to many sources — her entire day is consumed.

Braggs and dozens more west Fresno residents are raising alarms about what they say is the erosion of social services offered at the West Fresno Regional Center, which has been in their community for about 17 years. They say that the reduction of services at the center is one more obstacle, rejection and negation of promises made by both elected officials and executives of the county to retain a similar quality of service, even as the Department of Social Services has worked to consolidate across 40 locations into a centralized location in Clovis, starting in 2018.

“It’s like we are left out. Low-income is left out, especially the community over here,” said 39-year-old James Williams III, who receives SNAP food assistance and Medi-Cal from the Department of Social Services. “It’s a bad inconvenience for us. This is not right. We pay our taxes. We’re still good citizens.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

“That’s unacceptable to me, if people are being told to go to Clovis,” said Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, who expressed dismay that residents were having difficulty accessing services after being assured that the county’s presence in the neighborhood had not changed.

Residents of west Fresno, Fresno County officials and employees all say that while there are still over 70 county employees at the West Fresno Regional Center, a key type of employee — eligibility workers, who help residents fill out forms and generally assist in navigating a bureaucratic system — are not present, resulting in people being directed to Clovis, despite assurances to the contrary.

Additionally, job specialists — a type of social worker who helps people who are unemployed and on public assistance find work — are present at the site but unavailable to residents.

“No one said anything about them moving from this location,” Williams said.

Fresnoland/The Fresno Bee verified the experiences of several west Fresno residents during visits to the WFRC on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9, from answers provided by the receptionist about access or lack of it as well as observations from other residents seeking services on those days.

The visits confirmed the stories told by residents about the lack of service at the center. Clients’ requests for help and more information were met with gentle, but insistent refusals.

The receptionist explained that people who “can’t read and need help” must go to Clovis. “This is where they have all the eligibility workers,” she explained. And if they can’t get to Clovis? “They would have to call the call center, or we have somebody here every Thursday.”

However, when a reporter visited on Thursday, Sept. 9, there was no one to answer clients’ questions, and another DSS employee explained that the Thursday visit “is only once a month.”

When asked to explain why WFRC was designated as a full-service center if it doesn’t offer basic services, the receptionist replied, “I apologize for that wording that they have, but they do all the EW (eligibility workers) stations at the Clovis campus.”

“We used to have it all here a long time ago, but things have changed,” another WFRC staff member, who identified herself as a job specialist, said on Sept. 9. “So what they did is put everything in the new Clovis center buildings. They want everybody on one campus to make it easier for everybody.”

Service changes reported by West Fresno residents

Several west Fresno residents who receive DSS services described these changes that they have observed and experienced since the centralization of services in Clovis:

  • Clients are required to travel to Clovis for basic services, such as help filling out forms to become eligible for various forms of social services including SNAP and CalWorks. These services were previously addressed at the West Fresno Regional Center.
  • Residents are unable to meet with eligibility workers or job specialists at the West Fresno site.
  • Residents are directed to use a self-service computer at the center with no assistance provided to those who experience difficulty.
  • Residents state that traveling to Clovis imposes an undue hardship on them, particularly for those without their own vehicles as well those with constraints that limit mobility.
  • Residents complain that the public transportation serving their community is unreliable and limits their ability to travel to the new campus in Clovis.
  • Residents claim that the Clovis campus staff, unlike the old staff in the WFRC who took personal interest in their wellbeing, refuse to assist them with the new technology they are encouraged to utilize.
  • Residents express concerns about reprisals for speaking out about delays in processing their papers.

Fresno County’s response

“I’ve never said we’re not going to serve west Fresno,” said Delfino Neira, director of Social Services for Fresno County.

Fresno County officials, according to answers supplied via a Sept. 3 email from Sonja Dosti, Fresno County’s public information officer, insist that services in west Fresno have not been disrupted since the consolidation to Clovis, with the exception of the period when buildings were shut down due to pandemic restrictions.

“The bottom line is Fresno County has not reduced or eliminated services for west Fresno, but enhanced and expanded them,” she said in a memo.

The county provided records that show a consistent level of staffing between 2017 to the present at the West Fresno Regional Center.

This includes:

  • One supervisor and eight job specialists in Employment Services;
  • Eight staff in Health Care Options;
  • Two supervisors and 20 social workers in In-Home Supportive Services;
  • Seven program manager/supervisors and 37 social work and clerical staff in Child Welfare – only from Permanent Planned Living Arrangement;
  • And, one eligibility worker and two office assistants in Intake.

According to the county records, the in-home supportive service workers, as well as health care workers, along with self-service options, were added to the center after the pandemic began.

“We put a resource center in that area that was never there before,” Fresno County Chief Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau said. “I would argue that if you looked at the services four years ago, three years ago, compared to where they’re now, it’s night and day.”

On Sept. 9, one day after Fresnoland/The Fresno Bee visited the WFRC to verify if residents were indeed being directed to Clovis, DSS leaders attempted to correct the problem and added an eligibility worker at the center, as confirmed by multiple sources.

In a Sept. 10 interview, county leaders including Rousseau, Neira and deputy directors of Social Services Linda Du’Chene (Intake Services), Tricia Gonzalez (Child Welfare Services) and Maria Aguirre (Caseload Management) offered a vigorous denial that services at the west Fresno center had been reduced, insisting that the offerings have indeed been enhanced.

Du’Chene also explained that the WFRC “was never set up to be ‘intake positive’” or “a one-stop shop” where a client who had an eligibility need would be able to see an eligibility worker and receive services from public health, behavioral health or child welfare.

That message did not translate to frontline staff: “Pre-COVID they did all that here,” a receptionist said during a Sept. 8 visit. “Then COVID hit; the new office [in Clovis] opened, and they moved all the eligibility workers over there. This [WFRC] is just basically, information.”

Another source inside the Department of Social Services, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said, “It’s sad that when the clients come into the building, and they have questions about welfare-to-work, which is the work of the job specialist, they’re turned away and told, ‘You can’t see anybody here. You need to go to Clovis.’

“Especially the Spanish speakers — single moms, single dads with kids, that have gone there to try to get applications for Medi-Cal, food stamps and CALWORKS, or at least to get help filling them out, when they have questions, they are turned away and told, ‘either call the 1-855 number, or get on the DSS website or go to Clovis.’”

County supervisor’s assurance

Pacheco, the county supervisor whose district includes west Fresno, said he obtained assurances from Neira, the Social Services director, in August 2020 that the WFRC would be restored to pre-COVID capacity. Robert Mitchell, a west Fresno community leader, had raised alarms.

“On Nov. 23, I had DSS send a letter to Mr. Mitchell detailing the number of employees at the site, the plan for future staffing,” Pacheco said. “In addition, we were going to have self-serve kiosks for people who wanted that, in addition to what they’ve been accustomed to.”

Pacheco said he was informed that the WFRC reopened at 50% capacity on April 16, 2021 and at normal capacity on June 15. But that was not the case as reported by west Fresno residents.

Williams, a single parent of a 4-year-old, said the social services office in west Fresno remained closed, even as department leaders assured Pacheco that services had returned to normal.

“When I tried to turn in our SAR 7, it was closed. So I had to see if I could get someone to give me a ride to take me and my son way out there” to Clovis, he said. “That’s a real inconvenience. Me and my son could walk right here on California and Walnut, right there. We can walk, I think probably two blocks away. It is very inconvenient.”

Transportation access a barrier for residents

A 10-mile trip to Clovis may seem ordinary, but without a car, it can turn into a full-day ordeal. Residents in west Fresno are less likely to own a car than other Fresno County residents.

“If I have to catch the bus down the street in [downtown] Fresno, where the other office was also, I had two [DSS offices] at my disposal; now, there is none,” Braggs said. “I feel for people who don’t even have a car to borrow, especially if they have family.”

Sarah Nelson, a 40-year-old mother of two with four stepchildren, is a CalWorks recipient.

Nelson said that getting to the center in west Fresno with six children is hard enough, but “we had no problem. They’re very friendly over there (WFRC staff). They always help you. They got computers to help you to find a job if you’re looking for one; it was more convenient. And it gave more access.”

Now, she wonders how she could manage six children on public transportation on the 75-minute bus ride to Clovis.

“They always want to take from the west side of Fresno because they know that’s where most of the minorities are,” Nelson said. “I don’t think that’s fair. How much more can you take? We are already limited in resources. So, they’re not here to help us. They’re here to take from us, and for them to take that program.”

Marquis Herring, 69, has medical issues and limited mobility and does not drive.

She found out about a month ago that she must travel to Clovis for the same services she had received at the west Fresno center for as long as she can remember.

“You have to get on the bus that takes maybe two hours, versus 15 minutes,” Herring said. “At the transfer, if you miss the bus, you have to wait for the next bus. And if you do the Handy Rides, you have to be eligible for it and pay for it, and then you have to call five days in advance to get the Handy Ride, and it may be too late for you to get the paperwork in.”

Williams said he has considered other transportation options. “Uber would have cost me maybe $25 to $40 round trip,” he said. “I would have been there faster, but $40? We are on a fixed income.”

Mitchell summed up the position of west Fresno leaders: “We see it as a total wrong to the community and the recipients of those services, and the added stress, the added cost, and the added danger to those who have to drive out to that facility to get the resources that were previously located within our community.”

Why did social services move to Clovis?

The move to consolidate the Department of Social Services into Clovis was done in the name of efficiency and financial stewardship, county officials say. Several of the buildings that the department formerly leased were in poor condition, according to several sources. The goal was to “streamline and align all program application and intake processes” by 2018, according to a presentation given at an October 2017 retreat with the Board of Supervisors and executive staff at Harris Ranch.

There were no community meetings held to collect input from residents prior to consolidating social services across 40 locations into Clovis, a move that was initiated in 2017 after the Board of Supervisors approved multiple leases for the former Pelco buildings owned by companies controlled by Jerry Cook, a local developer.

Clovis has a separate transit system from Fresno’s. The city of Clovis paid the city of Fresno, which operates FAX, to redesign Route 28 and run it along Dakota Avenue to the new Department of Social Services location.

What does the future hold for the West Fresno center?

“DSS will maintain a footprint in west Fresno,” a letter from DSS to Fresnoland/The Fresno Bee on Monday declared. “Services provided will mirror those of the other satellite locations such as Coalinga, Kerman, Reedley, Selma, and Sunnyside.”

It is unknown whether staffing levels in the west Fresno center, as reported by the county, and the scope of service will change the referral of residents to Clovis in the future. The DSS letter notes that “specific services will continue to be evaluated as case trends are reviewed and requested by our recipients.”

The county points to a decline in the number of people seeking services at the west Fresno center. That fact, as well as the county’s reorganization, and the various requirements of state and federal funding, may shape the scope of services offered at the center.

But despite a commitment to a footprint, it’s unclear what level of services will remain, DSS says in its letter: “It is unknown what the future trend will be as some of the state flexibilities and benefit programs expire.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.

I created Fresnoland so we can make policy public for everyone.