Last winter, she’s not sure how she would have survived without it. “I was truly scared,” she said.

Managing the centers now requires a full-time city employee, and Fresno has already more than doubled what it spends on them, from $300,000 to $800,000, Arias said. By next year, he expects that will rise to $1 million annually.

After the controversy last winter, the city is looking for ways to minimize the impact on neighbors and center staff. The plan is to turn over management to nonprofits and churches, who would run the programs out of the community centers for now, and eventually find alternative facilities, Arias hopes.

A painful family history

Everhart once held jobs, went to community college and had an apartment and a car. There were always signs of her mental illness, but as she grew older, it progressed into a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

By her early 30s, she had four children, no income except what welfare programs supplied and couldn’t manage the responsibilities of parenting or maintaining a home. All of her kids ended up with their grandparents.

“She was not capable of raising children because of how her mental illness affected her way to function,” her daughter Carolyn Mercer, 30, wrote in an email.

Mercer, who was out of her mother’s care by the time she was 2 years old, described her as neglectful.

A car drives up a street set below a freeway overpass.
An overpass along State Route 180, near the place Deana and Shannon camped during the summer. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“I know I wasn’t taking as good of care of the kids as I felt I should,” Everhart said, acknowledging she was struggling with her mental health at the time.

“Having OCD is like working two or three jobs — it’s mentally exhausting,” she said. “I did the best I could. I needed help.”

Since she became homeless, Everhart has only lived indoors for short stretches. She said she lost a room in an SRO because she spent four hours in the shower, convinced she was still covered in soap, and got kicked out of a women’s shelter because she couldn’t keep up with their schedule.

She and Thom said they’re on waiting lists for housing, but Everhart finds the obligations that come with being housed daunting. She was hesitant when asked if she’d take what the city might eventually be able to offer: a converted motel room.

“I’m not opposed to it, but if I have to be out here I’m OK,” she said, adding that she feels a sense of duty to help care for more severely incapacitated people living on the streets. “Maybe I just feel like I need to be out here to help them.”

It’s one responsibility, perhaps the only one, she feels equal to.

A woman stands in the shade under a freeway overpass grasping the post of a street sign.
Shannon Thom, 41, has camped with Deana for the past several years. Living together allows them to sleep in shifts to keep watch over each other and their things. They take turns using the bathroom at a liquor store, or take short breaks from the heat at a nearby cooling center. Shannon grew up in Fresno, bouncing around apartments with her mother and sister. At one point, she ended up homeless with her mother on L.A.’s Skid Row, she said. After her mother and sister died, she was left without any close relatives. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In the winter, she and Thom keep extra blankets and jackets from thrift stores to hand out. She found one man’s family on Facebook and reconnected them, and when another young man wandered over to their camp confused and hungry one afternoon, Everhart was eager to help.

“Honey, if you wait a minute we’ll go to the store over there and get you a cup o’ noodle and we’ll heat it in the microwave and get you a little soda,” she said. “Do you want that?”