Photo of a brown brick building with the words "EOC Sanctuary Youth Shelter" faded on the top
The former Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission Sanctuary Youth Shelter, located on U Street in downtown Fresno. Credit: Jeremiah O. Rhodes

What's at stake?

Despite pushes from fellow officials and community members, none of Fresno's educational or governmental entities have plans to establish or operate a youth shelter to replace the Sanctuary Youth Shelter.

Nasreen Johnson remembers the first time she came to the Sanctuary Youth Shelter.

“My good idea, at 14 years old, was to figure out a way to buy a bus ticket and get out of here,” Johnson said. 

She stayed at the youth shelter for a few days and remembers how helpful that was – the shelter staff provided not just a safe place, but also mediation services between her and her parents which helped her feel safe returning home. 

“I was a youth that needed that service, and it literally kept me off the street,” she said. “That was the safety net that protected me.”

Johnson, now the president of the board of trustees for the State Center Community College District, learned of the center’s closing last November, because she had reached out to the resource to help some young people, only to discover that the shelter was no longer in operation.

“Now, there’s nothing from LA to Modesto,” Johnson said. 

Five months after the shelter’s doors shuttered, there is still no official plan for its replacement. Both Johnson and other community advocates such as Save Our Sanctuary have urged local officials to fund a replacement to the Sanctuary Youth Shelter, which was run by the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission. They are pressing local officials to find new funding models to keep the shelter running.

Photo of a woman with curly hair in a blue shirt and black blazer

Credit: Nasreen Johnson

Should educational entities assume more responsibility in sheltering homeless youth?

Nasreen Johnson isn’t the only local official hoping that educational offices can come together to figure out how to fund a youth shelter. Critics have called on Fresno Unified School District to utilize some of the funds it received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to fund a youth shelter.

FUSD received more than $388 million from the American Rescue Plan’s ESSER III funding, which was given to local education agencies to address the impacts of COVID-19 on schools. 

FUSD received the second largest amount of funds in the state, behind Los Angeles Unified School District’s $4 billion. FUSD’s expenditure plan does not explicitly outline any plans for a shelter for young people experiencing homelessness. 

Miguel Arias, a Fresno city council member for District 3, said he hopes that one of Fresno’s educational entities will step in and fill the gap.

“In my view, our homeless youth are also students in K-12, and they should be recipients of social services,” Arias said.

According to the plan, roughly $1 million would go toward strategies for “continuous and safe in-person learning,” covering items like medical supplies, testing hubs and cleaning and sanitation supplies.  

Almost $84 million is designated for “addressing lost instructional time.” The expenditure plan lists a myriad of programs for that section, including social and mental health support, expanded after-school activities and providing educational programs and opportunities for students who don’t want to return to the physical classroom.

The rest of the district’s ARPA funding, totaling $303 million, is earmarked as “use of any remaining funds.” 

According to Nikki Henry, chief communications officer for Fresno Unified School District, a concern about using ARPA funds, which are one-time funds, for an overnight youth shelter, is the lack of sustainability.

“We wouldn’t want to begin something that we’d have to take away when these funds are gone in the next couple of years,” Henry said in an email to Fresnoland on March 23. 

“Our teams are building an even deeper and more robust partnership with Fresno Housing in how we collaboratively support our unhoused families with children, as they are the experts in housing.” 

Currently, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools and the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health run the All 4 Youth program, which is aimed at serving people ages 0-22 who are experiencing difficulties at home, but that program does not provide shelter for youth experiencing homelessness.

“We are willing to join other community partners in this conversation of providing educational services to children in overnight shelters,” stated Lisa Birrell, a Communications and Public Relations Officer at the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools in a March 13 email to Fresnoland.

“The focus, mission and essential role of the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools is to support the education of all Fresno County students,” the statement read. 

“This support often intersects with other essential services, such as safe and affordable housing, mental and physical health and equal opportunity for all students to reach their full potential.”

Along with the All 4 Youth program, the Department of Behavioral Health provides various services, including a drop-in shelter for youth ages 18-24, partnerships with schools to provide wellness centers for families and the operation of Fresno’s 9-8-8 hotline, which is the national suicide hotline. 

The Behavioral Health Department does not provide overnight shelter services.

“We can provide mental health services to minors, but overnight operation does get a little bit harder for us,” said Ahmad Bahrami, Division Manager of Public Behavioral Health at the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health.

Due to difficulties with consent and releases, the Department of Behavioral Health works with social services, who provide those resources. According to Bahrami, social services “have more resources or abilities to address that facet of a youth’s need.” 

The State Center Community College District does not operate a youth homelessness shelter as youth under the age of 18 are not the population that they serve, Nasreen Johnson said.

Challenges in counting homeless youth

No one has an exact count of how many homeless youth there are across the Central Valley.  Reports by different organizations and governmental entities show inconsistencies in the number of homeless youth. 

In three of the largest school districts in Fresno County – Fresno Unified School District, Clovis Unified and Central Unified – recorded a total of 627 homeless students in the 2022-2023 school year. 

According to the California Department of Education’s data portal, Fresno Unified reported 496 homeless students enrolled in its schools, Clovis Unified reported 52 and Central Unified recorded 79. 

Assembly Bill 27, passed in 2021, expanded resources that school districts had for identifying students who are experiencing homelessness. The bill requires school districts to administer a housing questionnaire that asks families to indicate if they are “staying in a shelter,” “sharing housing with other(s) due to loss of housing, economic hardship, natural disaster, lack of adequate housing, or similar reasons.” 

“Living in a car, park, campground, abandoned building, or other inadequate accommodations,” “Temporarily living in a motel or hotel due to loss of housing, economic hardship, natural disaster, or similar reason,” or “Living in a single-home residence that is permanent.” 

While the questionnaire provides a standardized method across school districts for identifying homeless students, families are asked to self-report their status, and some may not feel comfortable sharing that information with school districts.

Along with counting through school districts, point-in-time counts also aim to count homeless populations, including minors. The 2022 Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care Point-In-Time count reported 464 youth experiencing homelessness, with eight of them unaccompanied. However, critics of point-in-time counts worry that that number undercounts the populations. 

The website for the California’s Coalition for Youth states that “homeless youth are highly mobile and often try hard to avoid detection and contact with adults and social service systems; this means they are often not counted during annual homeless surveys.” 

People experiencing homelessness may also find temporary housing by gathering enough money for a short stay in a motel or sleeping on a friends’ couch, further complicating attempts to quantify homelessness.

This is not just an issue in the Central Valley. Across the country, governmental agencies and nonprofits struggle to provide resources for a subset of people whose population is unknown.

City shelters not geared toward youth

The City of Fresno operates a variety of programs for people experiencing homelessness, including various warming and cooling centers during severe weather events, but while the city operated warming centers and shelters take in everyone, regardless of circumstance, they are primarily geared toward adults and families. 

Arias said it would potentially be harmful to provide shelter to unhoused adults and youth in the same facilities.

“As much as we have done for the homeless population,” he said, “this is one area where we are drawing the line with other institutions that they, as primary providers of under age youth, need to take this baton and run with it and open a youth shelter.” 

In many cities across the state, local governments work with nonprofits and other organizations to establish youth homeless services. In Sacramento, Wind Youth Services operates the Wind Youth Center, a shelter for homeless and runaway youth. According to their website, they receive funding from the Division of Behavioral Mental Services through the Mental Health Services Act. 

According to their website, the Act, passed by voters in 2004 and funded through income tax, is “designed to expand and transform California’s behavioral health system to better serve individuals with, and at risk of, serious mental health issues, and their families.”

In Los Alamitos, the Casa Youth Shelter provides emergency shelter services for homeless youth. Some of their donors include the City of Los Alamitos and the Los Alamitos Area Chamber of Commerce.

Councilman Arias said the city of Fresno would be open to helping to fund a shelter, but that it’s up to local educational entities to provide the wraparound services for their students.

“This challenge is not about resources,” Arias said. “It’s about finding a willing and able partner to lead the effort, and we’ve yet to find one in this community.”

Some wonder if youth shelter is what community needs

While members of the community are advocating for a replacement youth shelter, some wonder if a youth shelter is the best use of the area’s resources. 

Throughout the majority of the Sanctuary Youth Shelter’s operation, it was primarily used to support runaways and young people who wanted to get away from their parents for a few days, as opposed to youth who were not accompanied by an adult. 

“Youth are always supposed to be under someone’s care,” said Laura Moreno, a program manager for the County of Fresno’s Department of Social Services and Chair of the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care. “If they aren’t, child welfare gets involved.”

Moreno said that, today, youth who are not homeless, but may be in need of a place to go for a few days will usually find other solutions such as another caring adult or a family friend. 

According to a representative from the Economic Opportunities Commission, the shelter received an average of 12 calls for services per month during 2020-2021. 

“Approximately 60% of the calls qualified for services; however, no youth entered the shelter because they found alternative housing or accessed the family shelters to remain with their parents,” said Kristine Morgan, who was the marketing and communications director for Fresno EOC. “The remaining 40% either did not qualify because they were not homeless or they needed long term care, a different type of care (i.e., psychiatric care or group home).”

While there are substantial numbers of children experiencing homelessness, data suggests that almost all of those children are with families. Homeless youth with families qualify for a variety of programs and shelters outside of the Sanctuary Youth Shelter.  

According to the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care’s 2022 point-in-time count, there were “almost no homeless children under the age of 18, living without adults.” 

The point-in-time count is widely thought to undercount homeless populations, but it’s one of the most standardized methods across the United States for counting homeless populations. The point-in-time count is also what the Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to determine how to distribute funds aimed at addressing homelessness. 

Moreno said that while she recognizes that even one young person experiencing homelessness is cause for concern, she questions whether or not the small number justifies an entire shelter.

“The million dollar question is ‘why is no one using this,’” Moreno said. “The shelter seemed to be a bit of a niche. I think it might be worth considering whether or not the community has outgrown that niche.”

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