A panel of five community leaders spoke at the Community Matters Leadership Luncheon about various issues the county is facing such as housing, fentanyl and student chronic absenteeism.
The panel, held Sept. 20 at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hollister and attended by over 150 people, included Hollister Mayor Mia Casey, San Benito County Sheriff Eric Taylor, Hollister Downtown Association Executive Director Omar Rosa, San Benito County Superintendent of Schools Krystal Lomanto and Deputy Director of Community Services & Workforce Development Enrique Arreola.
When asked what the biggest issue in the community is, Arreola answered it was housing. He said in San Benito County a two-bedroom unit costs $2,500 and a three-bedroom unit costs $3,500 and that the median listing home goes for over $800,000.
“When you think about low-income individuals, how do you expect them to be able to afford a home and be able to rent a home?” Arreola asked. According to the county’s website, he manages Community Action Agency anti-poverty programs, the agency’s Workforce Innovations and Opportunity Act (WIOA) programs, and the San Benito County Migrant Center.
He added solving homelessness in the community requires a lot of partnerships, collaboration between different jurisdictions and a strategic effort. The 2022 homeless count yielded 357 people living throughout the community.
“Bottom line, my conclusion is you need to build more housing,” Arreola said. “Not just market-rate housing, you need affordable housing, you need housing that is dedicated to homeless individuals, more housing vouchers, more emergency housing vouchers. It’s a huge question and it’s a huge need but I do think in incremental steps we could accomplish reduction of homelessness.”
Later in the meeting Taylor said people don’t realize how much effort Arreola and his team put into providing services for people who are underserved or unhoused.
“It’s trying to roll a huge boulder uphill against a bunch of people trying to push it back down,” Taylor said. “It’s really hard work.”
When asked what he is doing regarding the fentanyl epidemic, Taylor said the Sheriff’s Department was awarded $3 million over five years from a grant funded by the cannabis tax that will be used to finance an in-house task force.
He said a challenge is having a balanced approach of enforcement to interrupt criminal behavior while still providing services and programs that allow people “get back on the right track.”
“The issue we have with fentanyl is that it’s one pill, one time, you die,” Taylor said.
He said the issue with getting that message to the youth is that it’s coming from people of authority such as law enforcement, school or county staff.
“I think we’ve tapped into a network of people in recovery that are able to talk to these kids and give them real stories and real impact of what happens,” Taylor said. “That’s when you are going to get the best bang for your buck.”
He said he works with the county’s Opioid Task Force and learned that youth were having farm parties in which they raid their parents medicine cabinets, dumping the pills on a bowl, mix them and “play Russian roulette with these pills they are taking without any understanding of how medications interact or don’t interact with each other.”
Lomanto was asked what her office is doing about the “teen pregnancy crisis” in the county but said she could not speak on what districts are doing. She said overall schools are trying to connect with students and families to address chronic absenteeism, which she called “one of our number one issues.”
She said students who are chronically absent are missing at least two days of school a month.
“I think the focus throughout all of San Benito County is addressing the social-emotional issues that our students have engaged with and struggling with after the pandemic,” Lomanto said. “When you can address and make relationships with our youth it helps them at making better choices.”
Lomanto also announced her office in partnership with Behavioral Health was awarded a $2.5 million grant for additional mental health services in the county for students and their families.
The event was sponsored by the Community Action Board of San Benito County and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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