Building A Better Bay Area: Fremont's housing solutions

FREMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- For the past month, ABC7 News has been embedded in the City of Fremont and this week we'll bring you stories about their solutions to problems we're all facing.

One of the most universal challenges for the Bay Area is housing - how to have enough, how to make it affordable, and how to get it for those who don't have it. While Fremont is the Bay Area's fourth-largest city, it's still very much a suburban community, dealing with big-city challenges such as homelessness.

"There's a lot, more than I ever realized and it's growing," said Ronda Saladis, 55, who has lived on the streets of Fremont for nearly a decade. "You feel powerless. I mean, I feel powerless, I have four kids. Well, one of them, my oldest was killed, and my two daughters, they too are homeless."

Fremont has the third-largest homeless population in Alameda County, behind Oakland and Berkeley. As of January of this year, the city's biennial survey counted 608 homeless people, which is up 27% since 2017. Alameda County saw a 43% increase in that time.

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"I think they're doing what they can with an awareness of, you know, a bigger picture," said Saladis, when asked if she thought the city was doing enough to help the homeless.

This summer, hundreds protested against a proposed homeless navigation center in Fremont. After months of debate, members of the city council, including Mayor Lily Mei, made the decision to build it in a parking lot behind city hall.

"This is the best location for the navigation center because there's so many resources nearby," said Mei. "From Fremont's Family Resource Center, as well as our city staff, I think it allows us some great oversight."

City officials say the center could open by mid-2020 and will cost about $7.7 million dollars to build and operate for the next three fiscal years.

Mei added: "For us to do nothing, was not an option."

So, how did we get to this point? California is short millions of housing units, and wages haven't kept up with the rising cost of housing, especially for those who are low-income.

"The homeless problem has become more visible... it's impacting everyday life for most citizens in Fremont," said Louis Chicoine, executive director of Adobe Services, one of the region's largest providers of permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Chicoine, who also lives in Fremont, says it's estimated for every person who gets housed, there are three people who are newly homeless.

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"I want my community to be healthier, I want it to be a place that we're all proud of, and we can't do that when some of us are unhoused, when some of us don't have our basic needs met," said Chicoine, who added that the vast majority of the homeless are hidden. "They're in families, they're children, they're single adults who don't have a disability, but who have been disrupted by the economy."

The crisis weighs on the minds of many, including the congregation at Centerville Presbyterian Church, which has helped provide resources to the homeless community for years.

"We have a group of volunteer chaplains that sit with people and just listen to their story," said Gregory Roth, Centerville's senior pastor. "The whole idea is just to embrace their journey right now, and help us to understand what it is."

Fremont is an affluent suburb where the average home sells for a million dollars. But there's still space to build here, and the city has been aggressive with planning for a future that includes more transit-oriented housing, such as the many units currently under construction close to the Warm Springs BART station.

Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley has also been working with the city on projects like Central Commons, which will eventually be home to more than 30 families, who've all had a hand in helping to build it through sweat equity.

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"I was overwhelmed and I thought to myself, there's no way I'm going to be able to do this as a single mom working full time," said Julieta Aquino, who recently moved into the Fremont development.

Aquino, a native of San Jose, thought about moving to Texas to save money, but can now stay in the Bay Area to raise her daughter closer to family.

"Just realizing that I'm walking up the stairs to my room, and saying goodnight to my daughter in her room, that's just, every single day I'm amazed at how far I've come," said Aquino.

California, as a whole, has a long way to go in terms of making a dent in the issues of homelessness and housing affordability.

"I think we need to do a better job of meeting each other, talking to each other, hearing from each other, and when we do that, I think some of this fear will go away," said Chicoine.

As the city deals with growing pains, you can't say the folks in Fremont aren't committed to Building A Better Bay Area.

"Let's bring everyone together and recognize how can we address these solutions, rather than just complain or worry, but to actually take thoughtful action," said Mei.

Go here for the latest stories from ABC7's Building a Better Bay Area.

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