VISALIA — The Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance held the 2017 Housing Heroes recognition luncheon Thursday to honor the dedication of people who have made a significant contributions toward ending homelessness in Kings and Tulare Counties.

Of the over 40 nominations, 12 winners were chosen and five of the winners — one from each category — were from Kings County. Here are the Kings County honorees: 

Career Achievement

Machael Smith, executive director of the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance, said the award for “career achievement” is to honor people who have devoted their career or a good portion of their life to improving the lives of people in the homeless community.

Nanette Villarreal said she started working at the Kings County Action Organization in 1988 as a domestic violence coordinator and later at the shelter for homeless women and children. She began working as the executive director at the Family Crisis Center in Porterville in 1999, and was one of the three people who founded the Kings/Tulare Continuum of Care in 2000.

In 2005, she became the executive director of Kings United Way, where she continues to advocate for and support agencies and individuals working to find solutions to end homelessness. She said there is a “tremendous need” for homeless services that she knows make a difference, whether other people feel the same way or not.

“Probably since I was young I always rooted for the underdog,” Villarreal said when asked what drives her passion for her work. “Society judges the homeless population in a way that makes them the underdog.”

Villarreal said she is proud of the work she does and it’s an honor to be recognized with the award, though she knows there are a lot of people who do great things for the community in different ways.

In Appreciation

Smith said the “in appreciation” award is a bit different because it is given to an elected official or someone in a governmental role who is a champion of the homeless cause. She said these are people who have somehow improved systems and resources, or have financially supported programs.

According to the Homeless Alliance website, Mary Anne Ford-Sherman is the executive director of Kings County Behavioral Health and has been a strong advocate for homeless in Kings County. She has supported the Homeless Management Information System, Project Homeless Connect and the Point in Time homeless census.

Supportive Housing Provider

Smith said the “supportive housing provider” award is for either a landlord who is helping provide permanent housing, or a person who makes connections with landlords to provide permanent housing solutions for the homeless population.

Ali Johansen, an administrative assistant at West Valley Properties for 17 years, has gone “above and beyond” to rent to many homeless veterans in the Kings County area. She and the company’s owner, Carole Verboon, have shown an ongoing commitment to working with the Rapid Re-housing clients from both KCAO and Salvation Army programs, the HERO program, Welfare and Section 8.

Johansen said the market is tough sometimes, but she’s always very happy when things work out and they are able to help someone get housed. She said she loves her job and the best part is empowering people to get jobs and move forward in their lives by finding them a place to live.

“I’m overjoyed with this award,” Johansen said. “Working with these different programs has turned out to be a wonderful experience.”

Unsung Hero

Smith said there are actually four winners of the “unsung hero” award, which reflects that “there are a tremendous amount of people who try to make a difference.” She said there were a wide variety of nominees from different career fields who squeeze in the time to help others.

As a teacher at Kings County Office of Education, Zona Hoggard works with students that have low self-esteem and are working hard to believe in themselves and a better future. She has great success in becoming the support system students’ in her class need every day.

Hoggard has partnered with Kings United Way since 2008 as a leader of the Project Homeless Connect Clothing Committee. Every year since, she has reached out to local businesses and churches for clothing. She also uses the event as a way of introducing her students to doing community services by having them help prepare for and participate in Project Homeless Connect.

Supportive Housing Participant

Apart from these awards, Smith said the organization also highlighted three formerly homeless individuals with the “supportive housing participant” award. She said they will receive mini-grants to help with their personal or professional goals.

According to the organization’s website, Milagro Perez entered Hannah’s House with her then 3-year-old grandson in August 2015. She left the house a year later and entered the Barbara Saville Emergency Shelter, where she stayed for less than 2 months. During that time she was able to secure a job at Goodwill Industries in Hanford and found a place to live in Lemoore

After the Goodwill store closed and she lost her job, Perez was assisted by KCAO to be able to stay in her apartment and find another part-time job as a client facilitator/supervisor at Hannah’s House. She also has another part-time job as a personal care provider for her disabled sister.

Perez was able to relocate in January to a low income apartment complex in Hanford, easing her financial situation. She has not given up and is working toward re-enrolling in Hanford Adult School to achieve her diploma. She has already overcome many obstacles in her life, and hopes to move up the ladder at Champions or Hannah’s House once she improves her educational skills.

Smith said these awards are a good opportunity for the community to see that change can happen, and that there are amazing people in the community who are helping others succeed.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2423 or