U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determines property is suitable for homeless

mgaytan@losbanosenterprise.comJanuary 10, 2014 

-- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined that vacant property in Los Banos is suitable to assist the homeless.

The property was published last month in the Federal Register as useable homeless property. Interested parties can submit an application through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to purchase or lease it.

“The property has been identified as surplus property and is no longer needed by the Federal government,” said Traci Madison, regional public affairs officer for the U.S. General Services Administration, in an email.

The property is worth looking into, said Stephen Hammond, pastor of Bethel Community Church and a Los Banos representative on the Continuum of Care. The group of government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based groups works to reduce homelessness in Merced County.

“There’s been a great need for a very long time,” he said. “There’s nothing in the whole Westside.”

The 2013 count yielded 75 homeless people in Los Banos.

The former USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service field office, at 745 W. J St., has been vacant for more nearly 10 years. The property consists of two single-story buildings of concrete masonry construction totaling more than 5,000 square feet. The administration building is around 2,977 square feet, along with an enclosed garage building with roofed parking stalls that are approximately 2,398 square feet combined.

The administration building suffered damage from a fire in December of 2012, according to the U.S. General Services Administration. All utilities are available to the property. However, due to the fire, the power has been shut off. The fire caused damage to a hallway bathroom, walls, ceilings, floors, windows and some interior and exterior doors.

According to the U.S. General Services Administration, the damage to the hallway ceilings caused the asbestos material surrounding the HVAC systems to become exposed and brittle. Warning labels were applied as temporary measures. The GSA stated that a permanent asbestos solution will be necessary before the building could be occupied.

In order to determine the reuse or disposal of this property, the GSA is required by law to complete a number of steps. Among them is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine if surplus federal property is suitable or available for use to assist the homeless, Madison said.

Since HUD determined the property as being suitable for homeless use, it is being advertised to public bodies and eligible nonprofit organizations that would normally provide assistance to the homeless.

“A lot of times, getting any gov agency to recognize or designate a certain property for homeless services is half the battle,” Hammond said, adding “(but) we have to have funding available.”

Madison said if eligible homeless providers do not express interest in the property, it will be screened for other public use, such as an educational institution, park land or recreational use, “and ultimately sold to private entities if there are no conveyance opportunities.”

Mayor Mike Villalta said he was unaware of the property becoming available for homeless use. He followed up with an email: “ ...agencies that provide assistance to the homeless can apply to lease the facility. If no agencies express interest, then state and local organizations that provide services will have an opportunity to submit an application to lease the building. If there is no interest at this point, the city of Los Banos can negotiate a purchase of the building, if we choose to do so. At this point in time, the city has not discussed the need for this type of facility and we have not budgeted for one.”

Salvation Army Lt. Felicia Grant was also unaware of the property becoming available. She said it’s necessary to provide this type of assistance for the homeless community and believes it can be done.

“There is a definite need for assistance, and having the property and the building semi-ready for residency, is a huge positive for whoever is ready to take on this type of project,” she said.

Grant said she hopes someone who has the resources and ability to mange the project steps up.

“I absolutely can’t fathom the need,” she said about how much money it might take to start the project, adding, “it would take a united effort to get this off the floor. We have the numbers to prove the need. I think it can happen.”

Ashlee Williams, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Westside-Merced Co., said Habitat would celebrate the opportunity for Los Banos to have a safe shelter for “our most vulnerable residents.”

In an email statement, she said from a construction perspective, the project looks like a large, but doable undertaking. “There is no doubt that Los Banos needs a temporary housing shelter,” she added. “we have the second highest population of homeless people in the county.”

Williams confirmed that the closest shelter to Los Banos is clear across the county, in Merced.

The deadline to apply is Feb. 25. For more information, contact Theresa Ritta at (301) 443-6672 or Theresa.Ritta@psc.hhs.gov.

Reporter Marina Gaytan can be reached at (209) 826-3831 ext. 6562 or mgaytan@losbanosenterprise.com.

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