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The City of Fresno’s New Plan to Eliminate the Homeless

by Mike Rhodes (MikeRhodes [at] Comcast.net)
Austin Simon (seen in the photo below) lives at New Jack City which is near H and San Benito street in downtown Fresno. After the city installs 44 tool sheds at the Poverello House and dismantles the homeless encampment on G street, they will turn their attention to New Jack City. The city’s plan to end homeless does not include providing people with adequate and affordable housing - just tool sheds and sweeps on existing encampments. Austin asked me why the city shut down the overpass (above New Jack city) because it was unsafe, but they still allow several hundred homeless people to live underneath it.
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The City of Fresno’s New Plan to Eliminate the Homeless
By Mike Rhodes

After months of discussing plans on how to help the homeless in this community, the Fresno City Council came up with a bold plan - they are going to set up 44 tool sheds. The cost? $360,000 for the first year’s operation.

The tool sheds do not have running water, indoor toilets, or any heating or cooling. If you put one of these tool sheds in your back yard and tried to move your mother in-law into it, you would probably be in violation of numerous building code violations. But, 44 tool sheds is the Fresno City Council response for what to do about the issue of more than 8,000 homeless people on the streets of Fresno. Stack them like cord wood in tool sheds!

The good news is that nobody on the City Council really believes this will end homelessness. The bad news is that the City Council does not have a long range plan that will address the issue of homelessness in Fresno. The plan to build these tool sheds is more complex than it at first appears. When the authorization to build the tool sheds came up, Assistant City manager Bruce Rudd explained how this was part of a larger plan to clear out homeless encampments in the downtown area.

City Council member Jerry Duncan asked Rudd what the plan was to get the homeless to move into the tool sheds. Rudd said that “the plan is that once this goes into place, we will start looking at the Monterrey street bridge and G street encampments. The G street encampment would be the first location in which we would go out with the county department of health and human services to encourage people to take advantage of what I refer to as the south campus. At that same time, we will be providing notice that they are on city property and we will go through the same process we have been directed to go through as a result of the court ruling as far as how we deal with encampments. They will be given every opportunity to make that choice, but the first location that will be identified for removal of the encampment will be the G street location. Those folks who are there will be given every opportunity to take advantage of moving to the south campus.”

Duncan asked “if they choose not to move, what are we going to do?” Rudd responded “then as that area is cleaned out then we will start focusing on the Monterrey street bridge area.” Rudd went on to say that they wanted to see how much “voluntary participation” they get. If homeless people do not move voluntarily into the tool sheds Rudd said they had ordinances, including a pending “no camping” law that they will use to force the homeless people to move.

Duncan pressed Rudd on how many people will be put into the tool sheds, saying there are hundreds of homeless people in the downtown area. “What happens when that fills up,” Duncan asked. Rudd, with a cynical smile on his face said “based on my discussions with both Rev. Arce (director of the Rescue Mission) and Mr. Connell (the executive director of the Poverello House), they don’t believe and I don’t believe that camp is going to fill up completely, voluntarily.”

The 4-3 vote in support of building the tool sheds was not enough to provide funding for the project. That is why mayor Alan Autry held a press conference next to the Monterrey street bridge encampment (the homeless call it New Jack City). Autry said "We simply can't let a political process stand in the way of something that must be done right away." The next day, The Fresno Bee criticized the three City Council members who opposed the tool sheds (Sterling, Perea, and Dages) suggesting they did not want to help the homeless. The Bee, in an editorial wrote that these council members opposition to the tool sheds was “cross-eyed leadership.”

The Bee printed my response as a letter to the editor, which in part said “I was dismayed to read The Bee’s recent editorial about the homeless. Your criticism of city council members Perea, Dages, and Sterling was short sighted and misguided. These elected officials were taking a principled stand to develop a long term plan to address the homelessness issue in Fresno. They were saying that business as usual is not enough and that storing the homeless in tool sheds was an inadequate response to this significant social issue.”

The proposal to build 44 tool sheds sparked a significant debate before the vote was taken. About a dozen community members addressed the council on this issue. The first speaker, Kiel Schmidt said he was “concerned about using these pre-fabricated sheds that are for storage rather than for living. I believe many of them come with a disclaimer that they are not for habitation, and that could be a legal issue.” Schmidt also pointed to homeless communities in Atlanta (the Mad Housers) and Portland (Dignity Village) that included homeless people in the planning. Schmidt said “one thing that sets those apart from this approach is that the homeless have been involved through the process in the planning and in the construction of the dwellings. So, they really buy into this as where they’re going to stay, not just a concentration camp - where there is security watching their every move.”

Al Williams, a homeless man from the Roeding Park area, said “there is lots of money being spent, but it is accomplishing zero. It is making some people rich.” Williams said “what we need is for money to be spent to give a person a job, to get a person a house, and we can take care of ourselves.” He opposed the proposal to put homeless people into tool sheds.

The next speaker was Jose Luis Barraza from the Center for Independent Living. Barraza said “the fact is that living in a tool shed is not the answer, it is supportive housing.” Speaking about disabled homeless people, Barraza said “that they do not need to be on the streets, they need a home, they have a right to live independently, and ladies and gentlemen this (tool sheds) is not the answer.”

Speaker after speaker demanded that the city develop a long term strategy to deal with homeless people in a respectful manner and that the proposed tool sheds were not the answer. But, the condemnation of the tool sheds was not unanimous. The Rescue Mission’s Larry Arce agreed that the tool sheds were not a solution to homelessness but he wanted to see them installed anyway. The Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Debbie Hunsaker supported the tool sheds but also urged the city to work towards a long term solution.

After community input, the issue returned to the City Council for discussion. Cynthia Sterling, who represents the district where the tool sheds will be located, said “to extend the process without actually taking the opportunity as a city to look at some of the solutions that have been brought before us - I have a drawer full of information on every project throughout the nation concerning the homeless and what people have done for permanent facilities for them and how they went about doing it - but it seems to keep falling on deaf ears.” Sterling said that instead of considering the tool sheds the council should discuss converting abandoned hotels and motels into affordable housing. She also suggested establishing a “Homeless Tsar” that would oversee developing plans to address the homeless issue.

City Manager Andrew Souza brought up a joint meeting between Fresno County officials and the City of Fresno which is scheduled to take place on November 7. Souza said their plan “is not to just sit around and all talk about this but to get a firm commitment to implement the ten year plan (to end homelessness) and see how that document works, how that plan will work, and who are the appropriate community stakeholders involved. We are trying to do a lot of behind the scenes work in preparation for that meeting so that on November 7 we walk out of there . . . with a very firm game plan on how we are going to move beyond just the temporary solutions.” Souza said he saw the tool sheds as a temporary fix but that he realized the goal was to look for long term solutions.

Blong Xiong, the City Council member who represents the west Fresno district (north of Olive), asked Souza about the Homeless Tsar. Souza said “if we are going to engage in the level of solution that we are talking about, including the ten year plan to end homelessness, we’re going to have to have a dedicated staff person whose sole purpose for being here is to address the issue of homelessness.”

City Council member Mike Dages said the City of Fresno has $4.1 million in this year’s budget to address long range homeless issues. He asked the city manager what was being done with that money. Souza said he would get him a status report. Dages said “I have a real problem with the idea of creating a tool shed, a shed like I have on the side of my house, for people to live in. I wouldn’t ask my relatives to live in it and I have a real difficult time asking the homeless to live in it. I think the quality of the city really depends on how they treat their poor, their working poor, and their homeless. I don’t think we are treating them with respect, in my personal opinion. We are struggling with affordable housing, we are struggling with this homeless situation, and it just shows to me a lack of respect by the City of Fresno.”

Councilmember Henry T Perea said that he would support the plan if it was a part of a bigger program. “If there was a plan to say OK, we are going to take this money (the $4.1 million in the city budget for homeless issues) and build transitional housing, provide some real opportunity and some real hope for these people and we had a plan that said this transitional housing will be built in the next year or two and this (the tool sheds) was going to be a stop gap measure until we can get these people into those homes, I could probably go for it. The problem is - we are not doing that.”

The vote was 4-3 with Duncan, Westerlund, Xiong, and Calhoun voting yes. Perea, Sterling, and Dages voted no.

The City of Fresno may have problems if they use the tool sheds as a legal fig leaf to destroy homeless encampments in the downtown area. In a settlement between the City of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) it was agreed that the police would not arrest homeless people who are camping on city property. LA made this agreement because they do not have enough housing or shelters for the large number of homeless residents. People simply have nowhere to go other than to camp on public property. To arrest them would be to criminalize poverty.

The agreement allows people to sleep on sidewalks from 9 PM - 6 AM in all parts of the city, except within 10 feet of a driveway, building entrance, or driveway. The deal prohibits the police from making arrests until the City of LA has built 1,250 new affordable housing units for the homeless. City of Fresno officials are already making the argument that building 44 tool sheds (for over 8,000 homeless people) gives them the right to clear out the already existing homeless encampments. They probably won’t get away with that without a legal challenge.

What would end homelessness in Fresno? Lets start with a plan to provide affordable housing, job training, drug and alcohol rehabilitation services for those who need it, adequate mental health services, and jobs that pay a living wage. We have the resources to address this important issue. $360,000 for 44 tool sheds? We can do better than that!

For a list of articles and documents about the struggle for civil liberties for homeless people in Fresno, see: http://www.fresnoalliance.com/home/homelessness.htm

###

Mike Rhodes is editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. He can be contacted by email at MikeRhodes [at] Comcast.net
§Does this Look Like Decent Housing to you?
by Mike Rhodes
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Poverello House employees installed the first tool sheds in 2004. These tool sheds have no running water, portable toilets, heating, or cooling. Many homeless people would not force their dogs to stay in these things. If tool sheds were the answer to ending homelessness in Fresno, the problem would be solved by now.
§Caught in the Act!
by Mike Rhodes
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Last year, attacks on the homeless led to a lawsuit against the City of Fresno and Caltrans. A preliminary injunction was issued to stop them from taking and immediately destroying homeless peoples property. The photo above was taken during a sweep in August 2006 on G street just south of the Rescue Mission. These are disciples from the Rescue Mission taking and destroying homeless peoples property who were living on public land. Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd says that the city will sweep this area clean of homeless people as soon as 44 tool sheds are installed at the Poverello House.
§A message for Bubba
by Mike Rhodes
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Al Williams, a homeless man from the Roeding Park area, took his message to the mayor’s “hood” in North Fresno (not far from the Starbucks) where mayor Autry is known to hang out.
§Jose Luis Barraza
by Mike Rhodes
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Jose Luis Barraza, speaking before the City Council, said the proposed tool sheds were not a solution to homelessness.
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