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Central Valley | Health, Housing, and Public Services

Sleep on this- The American Dream
by kelly borkert
Sunday Jan 6th, 2013 3:19 AM
As temperatures dropped far enough below freezing to coat everything in Fresno with ice, people with no shelter pay the full price for Fresno housing policies.

On the day Richard Stone placed a letter to the editor mentioning the Sleeping Bag Project in the Fresno Bee, a woman named Darla saw a chance to get some direct assistance for her 71 year old brother, who told her the day before that he was freezing to death. Thanks to Richard Stone, that death has yet to come.

Darla's brother now has a down sleeping bag to help fight the cold, thanks again to the dropoff donation of Richard Stone.

Just waking up indoors without the benefit of a modern, insulated house, or the budget to afford expensive energy bills from an inefficient gas heater, gives reason to empathize. Looking outside and seeing the ice everywhere, knowing how many hundreds, actually thousands, in Fresno sleep outside, some lucky to have a tent, many unlucky to have their tents and belongings stolen on a regular basis. Sometimes by city employees, other times by opportunistic passers-by.

But those concerns rarely intrude on our sleep, even upon the Sleeping Bag Project, a long running volunteer program that purchases and distributes sleeping bags and similar items for the people who live on the street in Fresno, California. Over the last several years, the bulk of the distribution activity took place in conjunction with Food Not Bombs activities on Saturdays at Roeding Park, serving a population that remains distinct from the downtown Poverello House/Rescue Mission sidewalk encampments. People who do not wish to be in the soup of drugs and violence served on those sidewalks can be found scattered throughout Fresno, but considerable numbers live in and around the Parkside/Roeding Park area. Numbers fluctuate according to pressure applied by the City of Fresno who in the last ten years have performed "cleanups" involving summary removal and destruction of property and uprooting a long stretch of Oleander bushes to eliminate shelter and installing fencing to prohibit access.

They have closed down ramshackle hotels that housed throngs of low and no income families, and various enforcement activities directed at people living outdoors keep things in flux. It becomes clear that keeping the most basic of possessions is more than a challenge when desperate people become even more desperate. Thefts have an extremely catastrophic effect upon those with the least to actually steal, and that has recently been made very obvious by a few of the "typical" needy people served by a loose chain of Sleeping Bag confederates.

When Darla made the phone call to the radio station mentioned in Stone's letter to the editor regarding the Sleeping Bag Project, she took a step few others do. I received the next call she placed and heard the situation her 71 year old brother was in, having been robbed of his wallet and phone by someone he knew, his luck really took a bad turn. He had been renting a truck which he worked out of, and staying temporarily in an unheated warehouse with the permission of the owner while construction was being done nearby. As a consequence of the theft of his wallet and phone, he could no longer keep the truck without his license. From extremely difficult to nearly impossible to survive in the cold snap of a Fresno winter, his circumstances were heartbreaking. Not a drug addicted alcoholic, unwilling to get off the streets, but that is the cliche description applied by people who honestly pretend to be spiritually involved in dealing with the crisis on our streets. Also the attitude presented by people with less faith based accreditations, often just hate based derision of the poor, ang drug war racism fueled prejudice.
Although it can be understood, based on the situations exacerbated by city actions downtown. The concentrated population that surrounds the Poverello area is a desperate, younger and more abusive crowd, which could easily form the sum total for casual observers wishing they were out of sight, out of mind, although the hundreds of homeless on street corners throughout the county lets everyone know how widespread the situation is.

People are living on the street with danger at their door every day.

As it turns out, their demographics should shame us all into action.

One 71 year old freezing in the cold should be enough to do that.

Darla's brother had filled out all the paperwork with the Fresno Housing Authority, as many other homeless residents of Fresno have done.

In fact, she said the lady that helped him fill out the paperwork had just resigned from her position in response to HUD concerns regarding millions of dollars of misdirected funding that the Bee recently reported in response to a HUD report on the misspent/missing funds.

That alone should be enough to shame us all into action. But is it?

One day later at the Food Not Bombs Saturday meal in Roeding Park, another couple were gathering some food and explaining their circumstances to Debbie Kratzer, a longtime volunteer and local artist. They had a 40 foot motor home that caught fire after a backfire and burned to the ground, two days after their insurance expired. They received no notice from the company that their fees were due, and found themselves completely homeless. They tried to reach out to a local news station program called "47 on your side" but they were told they could not help them. The immediate concerns they faced included trying to access heart medication from the nearest pharmacy several miles away by foot. The husband, confined to a wheelchair, solicited help from every person he came across in a fast food parking lot, not one could provide a ride for them. Their son was tasked with walking to the pharmacy and they were hoping he could get the medication that day.

Another very serious problem was their tent had just been stolen. The weather has gotten much more serious in the last week with temperatures in the high 20's and rain forecast as well. We had a couple of blankets that were also donated recently and gave them to the couple, along with a promise that I would come by their location on Monday with a tent and whatever I could find for them.
I was not shamed into action. I was simply ashamed that this couple had to live on the street, well into their seventies.

I was ashamed that anyone would steal from a couple as vulnerable and sweet as they.

I was still willing to wait at least a day before going back to try and help.
Not the fastest service, but logistically the best I could commit to at the time.
Not so, Debbie Kratzer. After making it home with a truck filled with tables and serving supplies, I heard from her that she had a pup tent and wanted to find the couple so they could have it.

Stirred somewhat, I offered to go with her for safety and also to bring some sleeping bags and a large blue tarp that was in storage nearby. When we arrived at their location, we took what we had for them and Debbie erected the "pup tent" which was a beautifully constructed, compact device that expanded into a much larger tent than I expected.

Far superior to anything that the Sleeping Bag Project might have purchased, this donation from Jim and Debbie Kratzer was absolutely perfect!

As I spoke to the husband he informed me they had been married FIFTY TWO YEARS!

I suggested that he probably got the right one, and he agreed emphatically, that she was all that and more.

These folks are exceptional, but they are not the exception. Misfortune is the common denominator behind homelessness.

Not drugs and alcohol and mental illness. Those things are common enough on and off the street, but they are not sole or primary causes.

People hide their hearts from the bold facts of poverty and misfortune, telling themselves and each other that those people out in the cold want to be there.


That alone should be enough to shame us all into action.


The Sleeping Bag Project has been an ongoing concern for well over a decade in Fresno. Donations of sleeping bags, blankets, tarps and tents can be made during office hours at three different drop-off locations in Fresno, the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2672 E Alluvial,

Wesley Methodist Church at 1343 E Barstow, and KFCF at 1449 Wishon .

Electronic donations can be made through the KFCF website- http://fresnofreecollegefoundation.org/sleeping-bag-project.php

Your contributions can make a difference. There are many ways to help, and there are many who need it.

Richard Stone and Debbie Kratzer have set an example we all should follow, because it works.

Their good deeds should not go unremarked, nor should they have to shame us all into action.

But they did me.

Thank you Richard.

Thank you Debbie.

Thanks to everyone who sees the need and respond as they can. Its the best we can do.

§Shelter from the storm
by kelly borkert Sunday Jan 6th, 2013 3:20 AM