Fresno Economic Opportunities Commissions' Sanctuary Youth Shelter on N Street, which shut its doors in November 2022. Credit: Danielle Bergstrom / Fresnoland

What's at stake?

Fresno's Economic Opportunities Commission's decision to close Fresno's only shelter for homeless youth has left community members and advocates frustrated and struggling to support youth experiencing homelessness.

In the aftermath of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s decision to close Fresno’s only shelter for homeless youth last November, advocates and community members are scrambling to make sense of the closure and to find alternatives. 

At a Jan. 24 Fresno School Liaison Subcommittee meeting, Chrystal Streets, Fresno EOC’s homeless services manager, said that the Sanctuary Youth Shelter’s shelter closing was a “blow to the EOC.” 

Before the November closure, EOC’s Sanctuary Youth Shelter on N Street in downtown Fresno was the only refuge for unsheltered children under the age of 18 in the county.

Dez Martinez, a Fresno-based business owner and homeless advocate, said the closure of the shelter complicates the work she does to support homeless youth. 

“There’s absolutely nowhere to take these teenagers,” Martinez said. “Now, I just try to call sponsors and ask for a couple of days in a motel room, but motel prices are skyrocketing.” 

The Fresno Rescue Mission, which ran the Craycroft Center, a youth homeless program, until it closed in 2010, also referred young people to the Sanctuary Youth Shelter, according to Matthew Dildine, the Rescue Mission’s CEO. 

Along with overnight lodging, the youth shelter also served as a place for young people to go during the day, keeping them off the streets. Without the shelter, keeping young people busy has become more difficult. 

“Sometimes, I’ll just say, ‘here’s bus fare’ just for them to sit on the bus all day long. They’ll ride it from beginning to end, just to stay off the streets and stay warm,” Martinez said.

Other fallouts from the Sanctuary’s closing include a lack of young people served by the Safe Place program, adopted in Fresno in 1998 as a resource for young people in need of immediate help and safety – who were previously referred to the shelter.   

Now, when youth arrive at the shelter, they are directed to another EOC shelter on T Street, which only serves 18-24-year-olds. If the youth minors do not have a safe place to spend the night, Child Protective Services are contacted.

‘Absolutely nowhere to take these teenagers’

Nasreen Johnson, president of the State Center Community College District’s board of trustees and previous director of marketing and communications for the EOC, said at the School Liaison Subcommittee meeting that she was concerned that youth would not seek help from the EOC if CPS is involved. 

“Youth have been – rightfully so – not showing up at those places because it’s not safe,” Johnson said.

She added that young people, especially those who get mistreated by their families after they come out as LGBTQ+, would have nowhere to go when they are “having arguments with their family members.”

Joe Martinez, former EOC Sanctuary community relations and outreach manager, condemned EOC’s lack of plans for providing resources for homeless youth during public comments.

“What EOC didn’t mention in their presentation is that there is no replacement plan for this youth population,” said Joe Martinez,  who served as the Sanctuary’s community relations and outreach manager, during public comments.

An issue of outreach?

The EOC announced that the Sanctuary Youth Shelter would close its doors in November 2022, citing a “lack of demand for the services provided,” according to the agency’s news release.

Joe Martinez remembers the day Fresno’s Sanctuary Youth Shelter opened almost 30 years ago. 

“We were going around cleaning up the shelter, making sure the beds were made, the bathrooms were clean and that everything looked welcoming for the youth that entered the shelter,” Martinez said. “There was excitement in the air.”

The shelter’s goal was to serve at least 180 homeless youth per year, offering food, clothing, case management services and recreational activities, according to an email from Kristine Morgan, Fresno EOC’s director of marketing and communication.

According to the email from Morgan, during the 2020-2021 year, the shelter handled an average of 12 calls per month, but did not provide any services, as youth found alternative housing options or needed different services than those provided at the sanctuary. Many community members blame EOC’s lack of outreach as a reason for the shelter’s underutilization. 

“When you don’t do outreach, and you’re supposed to be targeting runaway homeless youth, you’re going to get very few kids who know about your program, who know how to access your program and who will use the program,” said Martinez.

Kristine Morgan stated in an email to Fresnoland that the EOC still operated an outreach team. 

“Fresno EOC does still operate an outreach team and provides street-based outreach to all individuals (including youth) in Fresno and Madera Counties,” the email stated.

The EOC had received a three-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct street outreach from 2016-2019. However, when they reapplied in 2019, they were not awarded. 

At the board meeting, Chrystal Streets explained that the shelter’s closing was partially due to a shift in funding which changed whom the shelter could serve. 

Prior to its closing, she said, the shelter received mostly young people with behavioral issues, and “when the funding changed, we weren’t able to serve those youth anymore.”

According to Streets, the shelter had primarily served young people with behavioral issues who had other safe housing options.

Definitions of “homeless youth” differ across funding sources, and the youth shelter’s recent shift in funding required a more restrictive approach to the people it could serve. According to Morgan, the shelter had to abide by the definition set forth by the Family & Youth Services Bureau within the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Where do homeless youth go now?

Various officials also discussed alternate sources of funding to either reopen the youth shelter or open a new one.

Fresno city councilmember Miguel Arias suggested that the responsibility to fund and operate a youth shelter should fall on the County Office of Education because the city of Fresno has their “hands full” serving other homeless populations.

“People ask me ‘what’s the role of the [Board] of Education,’” Arias said. “They oversee every K-12 system in the county; they have the most expensive, highly compensated superintendent in the whole region, and they operate one school. So I think they have the bandwidth and the responsibility to step into this gap.”

Bryan Burton, president of the Fresno County Board of Education, responded that the Board does not have sufficient discretionary funding for a youth shelter, and board members discussed potential partnerships with other offices, groups and community members. 

“We’re pretty heavily restricted on what we can and can’t spend on,” he said.

Fresno County Board of Education members Burton and Johnson disagreed about the role Fresno County – as the primary homelessness coordination agency – should play in advancing a solution.

“I do agree that this is probably an item that rests with the county of Fresno, where they would play a lead role, because they do have that ability to take in youth, and have a responsibility to take in youth that are unhoused,” Burton said.

“I don’t think the county is where students and their families would willingly go. It would be like somebody showing up at the jail and saying ‘hey, I need a place to stay.’ I know it happens, but that is literally a last resort for folks,” responded Johnson.

Johnson mentioned Fresno County Office of Education’s All 4 Youth program – a program funded by Fresno County’s Department of Behavioral Health to provide crisis support for youth – as a potential partnership model to explore.

Joe Martinez has teamed up with other Sanctuary Youth Shelter advocates to form Save Our Sanctuary, an advocacy campaign to bring back services. The group has appeared at city council and board meetings, and sent letters to the EOC, urging them to reopen the shelter. The group also outlined alternative ways the EOC could provide shelter and services for homeless young people.

The EOC acknowledged receipt of 45 letters, adding that they are taking the Save Our Sanctuary recommendations into consideration.

The letter suggests that the EOC reopen the shelter, operate a smaller shelter, meet with community members to come up with other plans, find a new community partner to take over the shelter or find new funding opportunities.

“We need to figure something out,” Joe Martinez said, “because our kids need this.”

If you or someone you know is a young person in crisis, you can text the word “safe” to 4HELP (44357) with your nearest location and you will receive a message with the closest Safe Place site and phone number for the local youth agency.

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