Bulldozers, Barbed Wire, and Harassment for Fresno’s
By Mike Rhodes
Barbed wire fences went up today in downtown Fresno to keep the homeless off a strip of land owned by Caltrans. The homeless were told to move to the Poverello House, which is a homeless center nearby. Assistant Fresno City manager Bruce Rudd said "we met with the Poverello House yesterday and they said they could take in anyone who needed a place to stay." Several homeless people I talked to scoffed at this assertion and said the Poverello House doesn’t have the facilities to take in the hundreds of people who had just been displaced. Dee, one of the homeless women in the area, told me that the Poverello House closes at 12:30 PM on Saturday. "There is no way they are going to let us all in there," Dee said.
I went to the Poverello House and asked for the person in charge. I talked to Paul who said he was in charge for the day. I asked him if I could see the facilities where the hundreds of homeless people were going to sleep tonight. Paul looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a car and said that he would have to call his boss and have them call me. He confirmed what Dee had said - they start getting people out of the Poverello House at about 12:30 PM and everyone is gone by 2 PM on Saturday. Nobody from the Poverello House called me back.
Before leaving the Poverello House I ran into the director of the Naomi House, which is located on the grounds of the Poverello House. Naomi House, provides women with a place to sleep. They have room for 25 women and they use a lottery system to determine who gets to stay the night. When I told her about the "clean up" on E street and that the city spokesperson was saying all of the homeless could come to the Poverello House, she just rolled her eyes. She said, "we don’t have enough room as it is, how are we going to take more people in?" In addition to Naomi House, which is the only homeless shelter for women in Fresno, the Poverello House runs a "City of Hope." The City of Hope grew out of a tent city they established a couple of years ago. The tents were replaced with Tool Sheds that house about 50 people. Many of the homeless complain about the City of Hope because of the rules (there are lots of them), because you can’t come in until the evening, you have to leave early, and the members vote you in or out. Pam, a homeless woman in the area, said it was "like the TV reality show Survivor - which homeless person will get voted out of the shelter this week?" Another homeless person described it as a Nazi concentration camp.
The only other shelter in the area is run by the Fresno Rescue Mission. The Rescue Mission has about 150 dormitory style beds, but they are only for men. Pam says they don’t even let women use the restrooms. The Rescue Mission requires those who want to spend the night to attend prayer services first.
With about a thousand homeless people in the downtown area, and inadequate shelter space available, what is the city going to do with people who are homeless? I asked that question to the Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd. Rudd said "we are going to encourage people to avail themselves of the facilities available." I asked if they would arrest people for camping on the street. Rudd said "I hope it doesn’t come to that."
Right after my conversation with Paul from the Poverello House and interview with Bruce Rudd, things started getting exciting on the Caltrans strip of land on E street. Lisa Apper, with the Saint Benedict Catholic Worker, had put herself in front of the garbage truck that was being filled with the homeless peoples tents, clothing, and other possessions. Apper refused to move saying "we have got to take a stand for justice." Several Fresno Police Department officers arrived and an animated conversation took place (see photo below). Apper refused to move.
About that same time, several activists from the Fresno C.A.F.E. /Food not Bombs collective, were starting to position themselves in front of some of the homeless peoples possessions. Fresno Police Department officer Rey Wallace pushed them toward the street. They managed to out maneuver him and ended up in front of the bulldozer (photo below).
The police and city clean up crew gave up on the strategy of trying to talk those engaged in civil disobedience out of the act and removed both the bulldozer and garbage truck. This turned out to only be a brief tactical retreat. Most of the homeless and their allies moved down to the other end of the strip of land where there was an African American man in a wheelchair who was refusing to leave his tent. As everyone went to the other end of the strip of land, the city brought in a crew to start building a fence around the property.
Walter, the guy who was refusing to move, demanded a permanent place for him and his dog. The police negotiated with him for several hours before finally working something out that was acceptable.
As Walter was being led away, I heard City Manager Andy Souza telling the channel 47 (CBS) reporter about how all these people could go to the Poverello House and they would be given a place to sleep for the night. After the interview I told him that what he said was a nice story for the TV audience and that it would probably make people feel better knowing that the homeless had a place to stay, but that he and I both knew it was not true. We talked about the lack of shelter beds and I asked him what the city’s short and long term plans are for eliminating homelessness.
Souza did not have a lot of answers to the question about the city’s plan for eliminating homelessness, but we did have a conversation about what short and long term solution might exist. He seemed to think that the crisis precipitated by the events today might motivate the city to work toward developing a plan to end homelessness. We agreed that pushing people out of one area to another was not a solution. It just displaces the problem. He listened as I told him the homeless in this area need a safe place to stay, trash service, running water, and portable toilets. These services would be less expensive than the constant attacks being carried out and would actually help rather than hurt the homeless.
Police Captain Greg Garner and Bruce Rudd joined us. Souza said that living conditions like this would never be tolerated if it was up in North Fresno by River Park. Garner said that the solution was not always something the City of Fresno could come up with. He asked "why don’t the churches and other community groups get together to help?" There was agreement that most people in North Fresno don’t know that conditions like this exist in this community.
While we talked, the bulldozer and clean up crew was busy filling the garbage truck with the possessions of the homeless. When they were done on E street, they turned and headed East on Santa Clara. A report just received (10:30 PM on Saturday night) says that a section of the fence on E street has already been destroyed, making the area again accessible to campers.