A new plan to fix Merced County’s homeless problem looks expensive. Will it work?

Merced County is looking at preliminary plans to build a navigation center and acquire other shelters for the homeless but some leaders say they are hesitant to commit millions of dollars to their ongoing operations.

County staffers said, with a plan in place, the county would have a better opportunity to pull state funding down to build a navigation center, which is the latest effort to get people off the street.

The state is eliminating funding for emergency shelters as homeless experts pivot toward a housing-first method when a homeless person is housed before getting mental health or drug addiction services.

The plan to build the center and rehabilitate homes around the county to be used as shelters comes with a $6.5 million price tag, but those expenses could get help from state funding. It’s the $4.3 million in ongoing operating expenses to provide as many as 321 beds that gives some leaders pause.

“Right now the state is flush with cash and they’re offering one-time monies to help you build a navigation center,” Supervisor Scott Silveira said. “But it doesn’t come with any long-term funding on how you’re going to operate it.”

The number of people in Merced County who are homeless rose by more than 18 percent this year up to 607, according to an annual tally by volunteers. There were 322 sheltered people without a home and 285 who went without shelter, according to the report.

The preliminary ideas for housing also would look to buy rundown homes or trailers in cities around the county that could be used to offer beds.

Some ideas include:

  • Atwater could see room for 36 to 39 beds through rehabilitating homes.
  • Los Banos’ options include rehabilitated homes and possibly a larger shelter for a total of 31 to 44 beds.
  • Merced would be home to the navigation center and could see 96 to 192 beds.
  • Another 34 to 46 beds could be found in the rest of the county.

Offering as many as 39 beds in Atwater, where the most recent count tallied 16 unsheltered homeless people, could draw anger from that city’s leaders. Supervisor Daron McDaniel said the plan concerns him.

“We’re looking to provide upwards of 39 beds. Seems like we’re importing a problem,” he said.

The Continuum of Care’s count for this year found 38 homeless people in Atwater, though only 16 were considered unsheltered.

CEO Jim Brown said the plan can work if all of the cities’ leaders buy into it. The plan is supposed to make its way around the county in presentations to City Councils.

Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said the plan is not perfect but the county needs to do move forward on addressing its homeless issues. “The opposite is doing nothing,” he said.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.