Merced County Times Newspaper
The Power of Positive Press
Times Photos by Jonathan Whitaker

City leaders see progress in preventing homelessness

• Unsheltered numbers might be lower • Major supportive housing project proposed for existing hotel complex

Local members of the United Tribes of California honored city leaders and community allies with gifts and kind words at the most recent Merced City Council meeting. In turn, Mayor Matthew Serratto issued a city proclamation for the month of November as Native American Heritage Month. The Greater Central Valley is home to many Native American communities, including the Yokuts people, Mono tribe, and Miwoks tribe.
Local members of the United Tribes of California honored city leaders and community allies with gifts and kind words at the most recent Merced City Council meeting. In turn, Mayor Matthew Serratto issued a city proclamation for the month of November as Native American Heritage Month. The Greater Central Valley is home to many Native American communities, including the Yokuts people, Mono tribe, and Miwoks tribe.

The Merced City Council is welcoming in 2022 with some positive news from the local battle front of the state’s war on homelessness.

During the council’s last regular meeting of December, both Mayor Matthew Serratto and City Manager Stephanie Dietz pointed to a possible drop in the number of unsheltered people living in the city.

According to a “point-in-time” count conducted by the Turning Point organization in November, the number of unsheltered lowered from 224 to 188.

“This is a significant change of those people living on the streets, which is your most vulnerable population, and you have put people at the center of this topic, and we have taken direction, and really tried to activate as many of our partnerships we could to address this issue,” Dietz said

Mayor Serratto added, “We are cautiously optimistic that number will hold for the Jan. 27 point-in-time count. We’ll see. If that’s the case, and we get something in that 190 range, I think it’s been a year of phenomenal success.”

Serratto is the current chair of the region’s Continuum of Care program that holds an annual homeless count in January. While Merced did not experience a flood of homeless people on the street during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Serratto did acknowledge that the number of unsheltered did rise 10 percent (204 to 224) from January 2019 to January 2021.

“If we showed a decrease [in January 2022] that would validate a lot of what we are doing,” he said.

At Councilman Jesse Ornelas’ request, Dietz did provide the council with an update (since April) on the city’s “proactive” plan to reduce the number of encampments, secure cooperation with regional partners, and increase access to permanent supportive housing.

She said the city has been active in reducing homeless activity in parks, public green spaces and merchant corridors. Refuse service has increased in problem areas — particularly along East 15th Street and certain parts of 16th Street — and the Police Department’s DART team has made 856 referrals for placement services, of which 111 services were accepted. They have also responded to 761 requests for cleanups.

The city has successfully negotiated an agreement with CalTrans in which the state reimburses the city for litter abatement around encampments that are on state property — like the highway on-ramp near 13th and G streets. This does not involve removing the camps, but it does include cleaning up all the garbage that accumulates.

Dietz praised Assemblyman Adam Gray for his efforts to bring millions of dollars to the region for homeless services — including the new Navigation Center in south Merced. She also highlighted a list of local government agencies and nonprofit groups that are on the front lines of the effort and providing a significant amount of services, from access to hygiene products and safety net benefits to case management and employment. The list included Turning Point, the county’s Human Services  Agency, the Behavior Health Department, Restore Merced, the Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities and the Food Bank, among others.

“We [regional partners included] have done a lot of good work to set us up for success,” Dietz said.

‘Homekey’ Bonanza

However, despite the upbeat report by Dietz, at least one City Council member sounded an alarm that homelessness is actually getting worse in Merced, and the city needs to do more.

“I was just in San Francisco about a week and a half ago, in the Tenderloin District, and it is just completely out of control,” said Councilman Fernando Echevarria. “When I came back to my little city of Merced, I can see that it is starting here. So we have to move fast on this, and we have to move quick. I’m not asking our mayor to declare a disaster emergency, but we are getting damn close to that. And we got to move fast, and we’ve got to lead, and lead by example. So what I’m looking at, maybe reaching out more, harder than ever, to federal and state entities that can provide money. California has billions in surplus money. We need to use some of that money to get these poor, unhoused people off the streets. Now they have decided to take over a certain area on 14th Street — sidewalks right by a Senior Center. We need to have all our sidewalks clear for handicapped people, elderly people, and people who just want to use a sidewalk instead of having to go around it. We are at a point where we really have to do something. We really have to something quick so we don’t end up like Oakland  and San Francisco.”

But without missing a beat, Mayor Serratto shot back:

“What if we approve the most significant homeless housing project this city has ever seen?” he asked Fernando, and then added: “You just did that an hour an half ago.”

Serratto was apparently referring to a decision earlier in the meeting when the council approved a joint application for up to $30 million in grant funding from California’s $1.45 billion Homekey Program, designed to rapidly expand housing for people experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness.

The city is currently working with UP Holdings, a national firm, and RH Community Builders, out of Fresno, on a Homekey-funded project that would provide 80 to 90 units of permanent supportive housing that target chronically homeless and homeless individuals.

The developers say it will be called “Twelve Thirteen” — because it would be located at 1213 V Street, the current site of the extended-stay hotel known as Studio 6 Merced.

That’s in Councilman Echevarria’s district. And that’s probably why the mayor was visibly dismayed by his colleague’s comments.

If the state comes through with the money, as expected, Twelve Thirteen will feature 80 or more converted studio apartments, office space for case management, room for educational training and recreation activity and a live-in staff with around-the-clock support for residents.

Twelve Thirteen is not the only project UP Holdings is involved with in Merced. The firm is also working on another project that’s moving along for a vacant 1.5-acre lot at 3015 Park Avenue in Merced. “Mercy Village” is a 65-unit mixed-use permanent supportive housing development expected to feature “important tenant amenities and ample on-site service delivery space for supportive services.”  More than 30 units will be designated as No Place Like Home (NPLH) units and serve individuals that are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness that also have a severe mental illness.  All other units will be made affordable to Special Needs households including those experiencing homelessness.


Affordable Housing

On the same night, the Merced City Council gave the OK for its Development Services staff to submit an application that aims to tap into the state’s $304 million Permanent Local Housing Allocation (PLHA) Program. Merced has outlined a potential five-year plan for about $3 million

The deadline to apply for the funding (or what is considered a low-interest loan) is this Friday, New Year’s Eve, and Scott McBride, the city’s Development Services Director, was quick to point that out.

The plan directs 95 percent of the program funding for developing low-income, multifamily rental projects, though the funds can also be used to support permanent supportive housing for at-risk individuals. The remaining 5 percent is designated for administrative costs.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development Department is expected to announce the results of the application process in early 2022.


The Mayor’s List

Mayor Matt Serratto ended the City Council’s final meeting of 2021 listing off a number of accomplishments Merced has made over the past year.

“All the hard work, all the long meetings, all the grind; when you look back at the cumulative effect of everything we accomplished this year, I truly think it’s pretty incredible,” Mayor Serratto said. “We have really made an effort to lean in to all the hard issues, and confront everything directly.”

Going down the mayor’s list:
  • “Redoing our housing policy”
  • “All the affordable housing that’s been financed this year”
  • “We figured out our Main Police Station, finally”
  • “Serious crime prevention programs coming down the road”
  • “We held the line on police staffing”
  • “Redid the pool at Ada Givens”
  • “Progress on Community Park 42”
  • “Zoo upgrades”
  • “We got wheelchair swings coming”
  • “Skatepark lights at McNamara”
  • “Redoing all the playgrounds”
  • “The girl’s basketball program”
  • By my count, volunteer groups with city support have collected close to 100 tons of trash”
  • “Water supply and conservation”
  • “Downtown … We are well on our way to having one of the finest downtowns in the Central Valley.”
  • “Everything around the UC, and the annexation”
  • “Campus Parkway developments”
  • “Quiet Zones”
  • “The Mercado event downtown”
  • “Utility Box Art Project”
  • “18,000 vaccines provided by city staff and volunteers”
  • “Multiyear contracts with employees”
  • “Unemployment rate is down to 7.6 percent”

The mayor added: “I look forward to another good year. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep our foot on the accelerator, keep moving, and see what more we can accomplish.”

But wait … There’s more.

After the meeting, Mayor Serratto said he was going to report back to the Times soon about positive news for the City of Merced. Stay tuned!


2022 Town Hall Dates

City Council members has discussed the preliminary scheduling for their annual Town Hall meetings designed to gather feedback from residents before the new budget talks heat up in the spring.

Three meetings will be held — one in the south part of the city, one in the central area, and one in the north. Exact locations are yet to be determined, but they are being planed for both an in-person audience, and some kind of online, interactive broadcast. Questions in advance will also be allowed.

The dates are: Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and Feb. 17.

The City Council will also have a strategic planning session where members will discuss goals and priorities on Feb. 19 inside the Sam Pipes room at City Hall.

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