FREMONT, Calif. — The Fremont City Council is currently considering a proposal in which residents of the Niles District — including a large number of Indian Americans — will be pitted against the growing number of homeless people here.
The proposal seeks to build a Housing Navigation Center at the Niles Discovery Church for the city’s growing homeless population. The program would house about 40-45 adults for up to six months, with the aim of transitioning them into stable housing. Modular units will be placed on a grassy knoll, known as Squirrel Hill, adjacent to the church building.
Similar centers on which this project is modeled, aim to provide comprehensive services to its participants, such as onsite health and wellness resources; employment assistance; and substance abuse counseling. After a participant leaves the program and transitions into stable housing, he or she would receive follow-up support services for six to nine months.
“Based on similar sites that are operating or being set up in the cities of Berkeley, Hayward and Oakland, the annual operating expenses are in the neighborhood of $2-2.5 million,” Fremont Vice Mayor Raj Salwan told India-West.
“City staff is trying to move expeditiously as possible to take advantage of the approximately $2.1 million in (California) state Homeless Emergency Aid Program grant funds, half of which needs to be contractually obligated by the end of the calendar year,” he said.
In 2017, the last year for which data was available, Fremont had 479 homeless residents, according to an Alameda County ‘Point in Time’ survey.
The historic Niles District is primarily a residential neighborhood with one elementary school within a half mile of the proposed homeless shelter, and another Montessori school in close proximity.
At a May 7 Fremont city council meeting — which saw the largest-ever attendance, according to security staff — Indian Americans and other Niles residents protested vociferously against the location of the shelter, noting its proximity to the schools. The residents are concerned that the only route to the schools is via the street chosen for this project.
Approximately 60 speakers, all residents of Niles, spoke for one and a half minutes each to state their concerns about the initiative. Ninety percent of the speakers, including a young high schooler, were against the move.
Before the city council meeting began, Balaji Gangishetty, who has lived in Niles with his family for the past 16 years, told India-West: “Hundreds of kids are walking to the two schools that are nearby. We have a lot of sympathy and empathy but the city needs to come up with a better strategy.”
“This is an ill-advised, ill-conceived plan. We all want to solve chronic homelessness but the safety of women and kids in our neighborhood must come first,” he said, noting that “no responsible neighborhood has a homeless navigation center.”
For Gangishetty, the bigger concern is that the city lacked transparency and is attempting to rush the project through without input from residents.
“We demand that the city doesn’t take a shortcut. We are going to ask them to look at a light industrial area,” said Gangishetty.
Critically, the city initiated its discussion with the Niles Discovery Church without an Environmental Impact Report, which normally would be required for such a project. On April 16, the city ratified an “emergency declaration” moving the project without an EIR.
“An EIR would take about two years, so we are not doing it,” Fremont Mayor Lily Mei told India-West.
Mei stated that it was not unusual and that cities had completed similar projects without an EIR. She declined to comment further.
Fremont City councilmember Vinnie Bacon told India-West that the project did not rise to the level of requiring an EIR.
Salwan added: “The council approved a revised shelter crisis resolution at the April 16 city council meeting, which waives certain California housing and health and safety requirements but as staff indicated at the meeting, the city would follow all required state and federal laws, including California Environmental Quality Act.”
Pinki Singh, who has lived in Niles for six years, has two children, ages five and seven, who both attend Niles Elementary School.
“The only way to walk to school is on the road near the navigation center. You never know what kind of people are coming there,” Singh told India-West at the city council meeting,noting that no background checks will be conducted on the center’s temporary residents.
“It is only going to increase the number of homeless people in Niles,” she added.
Mohan Subramaniam echoed similar sentiments. His son is in the fifth grade at Niles Elementary and his daughter, who attends Washington High School, has to stand and wait for the bus near the church. He too, was concerned about the potential population of homeless people coming into the neighborhood.
“The services they need are not in close proximity. We need to spend our tax dollars wisely,” he told India-West.
Abhishek Iyer said during the public comment period that there would be an immediate traffic impact and an increase in crime.
“Will the city increase patrolling?” he asked city council members, who did not immediately respond.
Arun Saha, a Niles resident, has created an online petition — https://bit.ly/2WoNGiY — to oppose the project. The petition thus far has generated more than 2,600 signatures.
Justin Valenzuela, who works with homeless people, was one of the few speakers who supported the project.
“We can all become homeless with just a stroke of bad luck,” he said.
Rev. Jeffrey Spencer, senior pastor and teacher at the Niles Discovery Church, told India-West that from 2017-2019, there has been a 40 percent increase in the homeless population in Alameda County.
He characterized the homeless population as kids who have aged out of foster care, veterans suffering from physical and emotional disabilities, and people who have lost their homes.
“There are lots of factors that contribute to homelessness,” said Spencer.
He emphasized that it was not a “drop-in” center, and also added that it would not attract more homeless people to the area.
Spencer said the proposed facility would have 40-45 beds, shared living room, toilets and showers and laundry facility. The city would be responsible for building the shelter and selecting a nonprofit agency to run the program and move residents into stable housing using services such as credit repair, providing first and last month of rent, and security deposits for utilities. The program would also help connect residents with social service agencies, said Spencer.
He added that he wanted half the beds to be allotted to homeless people living in Niles.
“Someone in the program poses less of a danger than people on the street. The danger that homeless people pose is not more than the general population poses to each other,” Spencer said.
The homeless are more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime rather than perpetrators, he opined.
Spencer said the issue was brought up at a March 31 meeting with the church’s congregants who largely supported the project. A member of the church heard that the city had applied for a state HEAP grant, and approached Fremont city staff.
The church was expected to sign a lease May 20 with the city for an amount that Spencer would not state. He said talks had stalled due to “loud opposition” from the community.
Vice Mayor Salwan clarified to India-West that the council has not made a determination on a site yet.
“The project has not been approved and there is not an approved budget. We will discuss these costs in future meetings prior to approving anything,” he said.
Two additional sites are being considered, said Salwan: property adjacent to the future Irvington BART station and the parking lot at the city’s maintenance center. Both are light industrial zones.
“The city has not determined that the Niles Discovery site is the preferred location but if and when the city council directs staff to pursue a specific site, community engagement will be a key component. It would be premature for the city to conduct public engagement prior to the city council selecting a site,” Salwan said.
“I welcome a robust community dialogue to ensure to hear everyone’s opinions before making a final decision on any site,” he said. Salwan noted that “neighbors near STAIR Center in Berkeley had concerns about the impact of the Navigation Center, which have not come to fruition.”
Fremont City staff will apprise the city council of additional options at a June 18 meeting. Following that, said Salwan, it will take several months for the council to take a final vote.
Salwan said Fremont, like many of its neighbors, is “dealing with an increased number of unsheltered homeless residents and is trying to proactively address the issue,” adding the city council has approved several initiatives to address homelessness in recent years.
Councilmember Bacon told India-West that he was not in favor of the project and would likely vote against it.
“I don’t think this is a good location. It is in a residential neighborhood and the outpouring of residents is to be expected,” he said. “We must be sensitive to what the residents think.”
Bacon said that residents should have been consulted. “They feel the city is doing something behind the scenes.”
“Homelessness is on the rise and we need to do something about it but I agree with the residents about placing the shelter in an industrial area,” Bacon stated.