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Homeless attacks in Fresno continue

by Mike Rhodes (MikeRhodes [at]
This is an updated story on the attacks on the homeless taking place in Fresno
By Mike Rhodes
February 15, 2004

In a coordinated multi-agency attack on homeless encampments earlier this month, the City of Fresno destroyed tents and other shelters used by the homeless in this community. Reversing a policy implemented a couple of months ago, the Fresno Police Department (FPD) has returned to the tactic of not allowing the homeless to build any permanent structures. With thousands of homeless on the streets in Fresno, and homeless shelters able to provide only a couple hundred beds, a majority of the homeless have been turned into criminals. If you are homeless and can’t get into a shelter, you are breaking the law if you try to sleep anywhere in this city. This new policy penalizes the homeless and criminalizes poverty.

This most recent attack on the homeless is part of an ongoing effort by the City of Fresno to harass the homeless and remove them from sight. Mayor Alan Autry recently pushed a plan to move the homeless social service agencies out of the downtown area. He wanted to provide land where the Poverello House and Rescue Mission could move, which is in an isolated industrial section south of downtown. There have also been public service announcements telling the community not to give money to the homeless, an ordinance that makes it illegal to panhandle, and the constant harassment of the homeless in the downtown core.

What is going on here? Why are the poor and homeless being harassed and is there anything we can do about it? The most recent attack (Wednesday, February 4, 2004) took place amid considerable media coverage. Spokespersons for the FPD and the Poverello House explained that the homeless encampment on Santa Clara Street had gotten out of hand. The drugs, violence, and criminal activity had to be stopped. When the police suspect criminal activity is taking place in an area, whether it be the homeless encampment on Santa Clara Street or the upscale River Park shopping center, what is the first thing they ought to do? That’s right, bring in the bulldozers. Everyone knows that the River Park shopping center in Fresno is a magnet for shoplifting and car theft, and that drugs have been sold on the premises, so naturally the response from the police ought to be similar: raid the location, remove all the people, and bring in the bulldozers.

Although other tactics were chosen to deal with the crime problems at River Park, the police descended on the Santa Clara encampment shortly after daybreak on February 4, in a highly coordinated multi-agency attack. In a show of overwhelming force, the FPD arrived in squad cars, on bikes, and in plain clothes. After securing the area with road blocks, they brought in the Fire Department and extinguished the fires that provided the homeless with the only heat they had. Following the police and the fire departments were the sanitation workers wearing face masks, bright orange vests, and rubber gloves. Behind them was the bulldozer that lifted whole tents, including all of the owners’ possessions, and dropped the material into the waiting garbage trucks. It was an efficient and unstoppable operation. The few homeless people who tried to resist were descended upon by government agents who forced them out of their tents.

One African American veteran in a wheelchair held out the longest. But he too was dragged out, and his tent was destroyed with all the rest. Members of the media were assured—and they dutifully reported— that all of the homeless were not being left out in the cold on this freezing February day. The Poverello House, it was explained, had opened up a new facility that will house all of the homeless willing to follow their simple rules: no drugs, no alcohol, in by 5 PM, and out by 7 AM. The new tents at the Poverello House are surrounded by a chain-link fence; guards stand at the entrance, and residents are required to have a photo ID. Some of the homeless did not find the Poverello House solution to their liking. Dontae Johnson, who is homeless in downtown Fresno, said, “I think it's a control issue. They know that it scares you—you may have done time, had warrants, and they use that against you.” Some of the homeless referred to the new facility as a pen or a concentration camp. In any event, the new Poverello House slept only 47 people on the first night. They might increase that to 75 in the near future. In the meantime, there are about 1,500 homeless people in downtown Fresno. You do the math.

But even if the City of Fresno did clear the homeless off of Santa Clara Street because of the crime, that would not explain why CalTrans swept a community of about 50 homeless people out of their encampment at the exact same time. The H Street encampment was clean, and drugs and criminal activity were not allowed. In many ways, this was a model community for the homeless. Erick Grove, a resident of the H Street encampment, said, “We can actually build another organization to take care of all the extras and give the people something they need. Some need mental health resources, some need a program, some just need housing. As families, we're sticking together to make it happen, the city has recognized it. They say they are coming down here to help, but they do the opposite. We've taken care of crime. We've stopped a lot of crime in this area; it's about taking care of our brothers and sisters.”

José L. Camarena, from the Caltrans Office of Public Information said that the clearing of the H Street encampment “was in conjunction with the City of Fresno, City of Fresno Police Department and the CHP. The City of Fresno was the lead agency in this exercise and was also involved with the simultaneous activities at the Santa Clara location.” Camarena further explained that “many of these individuals were trespassing on State Right-of-Way and the State could be liable in some circumstances for their actions and debris used as shelters.”

A 2002 study showed that there are 16,000 homeless people in Fresno County. Some of the reasons for the large number of homeless people in this area are:

* President Bush’s economic policies
* chronic double-digit unemployment in the Central Valley
* rising housing prices
* untreated mental health issues
* drug and alcohol abuse
* lifestyle choices.

The reasons for the ongoing attacks against the homeless in Fresno are equally complex. The push by the mayor to move the homeless out of the downtown core is tied in with his effort to re-develop the area. That is why the FPD’s policy has been to push the homeless south of Ventura Avenue. One theory is that the policy to allow the building of encampments on Santa Clara Street was to encourage the homeless to stay in that area and out of the re-development zone. The problem was that the encampment grew so big and the homeless became too visible—they became a political liability. Therefore, the encampment had to be destroyed before there was a community of thousands of people, possibly named Autryville.

Another theory is that this latest attack was instigated because the homeless agencies themselves want to be seen as the solution to the homeless problem. The federal government has just given $4.4 million to local nonprofit groups working on homeless issues. If the homeless are organizing themselves into independent self-sufficient communities, there could be a problem with justifying future funding. Agencies sometimes have a self-perpetuating aspect that is not always in the best interest of their clients or the community at large. Did this dynamic lead to the Poverello House to work hand in glove with the FPD to destroy the homeless encampments. Or, is the reason the homeless were removed because the encampments were bad for these groups image? As one social service worker said: “The Poverello and the Mission don't exactly want them putting up the camps next door because it points out very clearly that those organizations are the draw for the homeless to congregate which flies in the face of their argument with the City that the Poverello and the Mission are the answer not part of the problem.”

There were meetings that occurred before the bulldozers moved in. These meetings, which consisted of representatives from the Poverello House, FPD, the City of Fresno, and possibly other groups, made the decision about clearing the homeless from their encampments. As one (anonymous) homeless advocate said to me, “Yeah, I know about this and the (deleted) was NOT invited in on this. This is a Poverello/City of Fresno/ Fresno PD group with a few homeless (maybe) thrown in. I think this is the city's attempt to ‘deal with’ poor folk (get rid of 'em, cage 'em up) with Poverello being the "official" agency to carry out the wishes of the city "fathers" (the haves). It is all too conspiratorial for me.”

Edie Jessup, who works for Fresno Metro Ministry, says that “there is money out there to address the homeless issue. What is needed is a comprehensive, 24 hour supervised shelter for both single adults and families with all the wrap around services to get folks into permanent housing. That would include medical, mental health substance abuse treatment services and job training. There should be a separate medical detox available. What we have is far from what we need in Fresno. Now is when we need to mobilize the solution and garner the resources to provide a continuum of services for the homeless.”

She fears that the funding available is being poorly used..Jessup said, "Fresno County has run out of FEMA money in September for the last three years. FEMA emergency shelter funds are mostly all distributed through the Salvation Army for rent/mortgage to keep people in their housing before they lose it and very little is spent on 'emergency shelter' for those on the street already, because there isn't enough. Meanwhile, the city-county and some community based organizations spend shelter money by putting people up in ratty-appearing hotel rooms for four nights, at the nearly the cost of a whole month’s rent, further expending money only to support bad housing at exorbitant cost, far from services that might help people get back on their feet or feed their kids.”

Jessup continues, “It is a shameful way for a large metropolis to handle few resources. Part of the problem, in addition to others, is that all services for the homeless shouldn't be 'faith-based'; there needs to be a variety of services addressing the needs of the homeless, not tied to a particular faith path, and based on best practices from around the nation.. The existing shelters do good but limited work, and it results in turf wars. That people have to leave shelter during the day and line up nightly for a bed, and then be turned away without a place to go, makes tent cities emerge. To engage the police and criminalize the homeless is the worst. Exposing the lack of appropriate services for such a huge number of people is righteous. Fresno should be ashamed. Perhaps Amnesty International should swoop in? Or, we should get serious now, and create the best shelter system that creates the services that will result in good health and the highest degree of independence possible for the homeless in Fresno. We should act like the big city we are, and solve this with dignity for our homeless neighbors, while respecting their rights, and use available federal funds to accomplish this NOW.”

The reasons why the homeless are under attack right now are complex and there are no easy solutions. One thing for sure is that the homeless are an easy target because they don’t have political strength and are not organized to defend their interests. When their encampments were destroyed, all the homeless could do was move on and try to keep out of sight. If the progressive community in Fresno had risen up and stood with the homeless, it is unlikely that the FPD would have destroyed the encampment. Another strategy would have been to pack up the encampment the night before it was scheduled to be destroyed and march to City Hall. The tent city could have been reconstructed on the lawn in front of the mayors office. If that had been done, the plight of the homeless in this community would have been impossible to ignore.

The homeless in this community need to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve adequate social services to treat their drug and alcohol addiction problems. Health professionals need to treat those homeless people afflicted with mental illness and shelter must be provided for those in need. Housing and health care is a human right, not a privilege for the wealthy.


Grassroots Community Groups working on the homeless issue in Fresno:

Food Not Bombs
2925 N Jackson
Fresno, CA 93703
Ph. (559) 266-5305 or 452-0277 (ask for Dallas)
fresnofnb [at]

The Sleeping Bag Project
727 W. Yale Ave.
Fresno, CA 93705
Ph. (559) 441-1787
imajean2 [at]

St. Benedict Catholic Worker
4022 N Cheryl
Fresno, CA 93705Ph. (559) 229-6410
PaxOSB [at]
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