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Rescue Me

by Brandon Hill
Community Alliance Reporter Brandon Hill went undercover to bring you the inside story about what is going on at The Rescue Mission. This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of the Community Alliance newspaper.
Few local organizations are held in such high regard as the Fresno Rescue Mission. Recently Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin presented the Mission with a check for over $8,000 from a community event she sponsored. Earlier this spring the Fresno Bee wrote glowingly of the Mission; praising its program and touting it as an oasis in a desolate landscape. The Bee reporter(Ron Orosco) did a good job discussing the virtues of the Mission, but he only seems to have spoken with those working inside the Mission's walls about the nature and effectiveness of the program and not those who use the program or choose to struggle for survival without the Mission's programs.

Recently I had the privilege of walking the streets in the area around the Fresno Rescue Mission (roughly bordered by Golden State, F Street, Tulare, and Van Ness) and spending some time in the Mission for evening chapel and dinner. In preparation for my stay I had to obtain a $10 tuberculosis test, the cost of which must be an obstacle for many. I walked down G Street towards the Mission and stopped at the first group of people that looked willing to talk. Sitting in lawn chairs in the shade of a building were Ferny, Casique, and another man whose name I did not get. After explaining why I was there, Ferny, who was a Mission “disciple” for three months spoke up quickly about his experiences at the Mission. “They didn't like me because I'm gay...I followed the rules...Everyone knew why they kicked me out of the program.” He discussed other incidents such as questionable claims of theft by Mission staff which led to punishment and requests for money from the Disciples. According to his account, items would reappear after they were punished or money was extracted from Disciples. Casique, who sat next to him expounded on the realities of homelessness. “Everybody drives by and thinks they will never be here. Everybody that is here thought they would never be here” Casique blames homelessness on substance abuse and joblessness. He lost his job about two months ago and as work proved difficult to find and friends failed him he was forced to live on the streets. To Casique the streets are a place where honesty is rare and people take advantage of one another rather than working together.

I continued to travel down G Street which was lined with dozens of men few of which were willing to speak openly about their experiences. As dinnertime drew closer I resigned to sitting against a building to wait. The smell of urine was thick in the air as many of the men use a wall several feet away to urinate. As I attempted conversations it occurred to me that many of the homeless were not necessarily lazy or unintelligent as common stereotypes tell us, but many did appear to be dealing with mental health problems.

A line began to form for dinner and as I waited I listened to the conversations: concerts, jobs, and court cases were a few of the topics. The meal consisted of hot dogs, beans, a slice of bread, expired yogurt, and an orange. I'm told that it typically is not that busy, but had more diners because the Poverello House was closed. At the cafeteria style tables men traded food and people fell into groups of friends. The man seated across from me says that he grooms horses and will be staying in town until he can go up North, get his license, and start grooming at tracks around the state. As dinner ends I venture outside and see a few people turned away from the Mission. My first impression of the staff and volunteers from the dinner experience is that they have little respect for the homeless and they keep them at arm's length as a result.

The line for chapel and beds is long. I get held up at the check-in table because my tuberculosis test is not from the health department. I am almost denied a bunk until I inform them that the County does not give free tests any longer. This is the kind of information one would expect them to know, but they seemed very disorganized. I don't end up staying the night and leave before chapel is over. The religious service is very intense. There is loud religious music and as I look around the room most people are not engaged in the service. They are not singing, they are not reading Bibles, they are not paying attention, and many are having conversations amongst themselves or staring blankly. Most of the men are here for a bed and a shower and at least on the surface have little interest in being “saved.” I hit the road shortly before the service is over. A staffer assures me that there is little time left and asks if I'm sure, but I have already made up my mind.

As I walk down G Street to Tulare, Casique calls out to me and we talk, him more than I, about homelessness and the toll it takes on a person. He reflects with bitterness about false friends, priorities, and the emotional toll of being without a job or a place to live. He seems to have better perspective than many people I know. Nice clothes, cars, and other possessions mean little he and his friend agree. The things that they really miss are making their own food when and how they want, having a comfortable and safe place to sleep, and basic personal hygiene. We walk down to Tulare and as we part he issues a final warning about the uncertainty of friendships and appreciating what you have. He mentions that the knowledge that people care enough to listen gives him hope. I promise to bring him a pair of sandals like mine though as of writing this I have not been able to find him.

Several weeks later I ventured to the homeless encampment near H Street and Ventura, commonly referred to as Taco Flat or Little Tijuana. Feeling as though the encampment is almost the homeless' private property I feel apprehensive about passing through the gate. The first people I speak to are of little help. The next dwelling I approach is occupied by two men who, even in this place are carving out their own slice of beauty with several thriving rows of small potted plants. When asked why they don't stay at the Rescue Mission one man, Guillermo Florez, quickly replies, “He and I are a couple,” he says as he gestures towards the other man, “they laugh at us as we go by...that's why we don't go there. They make fun of gay people” He mentions that many gays choose to live in Taco Flat for similar reasons and also notes a difference between the Mission and the Poverello House, “At the Pov they treat you like a person. They don't laugh at you.” Florez also makes note of strict rules which govern use of the restroom, wait times for showers and other facilities, and rules controlling when they can come and go.

My final stop of the day is the dwelling of Lana Meranda who is joined by a man and a friend named Katrina. Meranda is to the point about the Mission, “There is no program for families without children. We are Christians, but we don't like it slammed down our throats. And the food is horrible.” At this point Katrina, a thin African American woman being treated for ovarian cancer chimes in, “They know who they're feeding – they throw us what they'd throw to a dog.” In response, Meranda remarks that she wouldn't even feed her dog the Mission's food as her dog, Queenie snoozes peacefully at her feet. While I had not taken notice of it on my trip to the Mission, Meranda and friends mention that the staff do not take food safety seriously – rarely wearing gloves, hair nets, or practicing good hygiene while serving(e.g.: wiping one's nose and then continuing to serve food). Katrina and Meranda agree that many have become sick as a result of eating at the Mission. The strict rules are again cited as reasons why the Mission is ineffective. Complaints range from multi-hour wait times for laundry and showers to the requirement that people leave the Mission early in the morning and return early in the evening. “They don't give people a chance for stability” Meranda says. “A shelter system should provide stability and this one isn't working, which is one reason why you see so many people out here.” Meranda believes that people cannot get on their feet under the impractical regime of rules the Mission imposes. She also believes that the Mission simply does not have the resources to get people off the streets again citing wait times and shortages of basic services. In parting, Meranda firmly states that the Mission is not run as well as other shelters and all shelters need to be monitored to ensure that programs are operating ethically and treating clients with respect.

The trips to the Rescue Mission and Taco Flat were as beneficial for learning about the Rescue Mission as they were in transforming my perceptions of the homeless. Common stereotypes about the homeless as lazy, unintelligent, and there by choice upon first glance seem largely unfounded. Other contributors such as mental illness, joblessness, healthcare costs, and a lack of affordable housing were more common among those I spoke to. At the risk of sounding cliché such an experience prompts one to think twice about the basic comforts we enjoy. Simple things such as the peace of mind of a locked door and practicing basic hygiene on a regular basis are luxuries on the streets. In comparing my life to the lives of those in the encampments I realized the levity of my wants, the pettiness of my complaints, and the number of small things I have to be thankful for.

Lawsuit against the Fresno Rescue Mission

A final aspect of the Fresno Rescue Mission's record that, as far as I can tell has received no ink in the mainstream media is a lawsuit brought by six homeless people living in the vicinity of the Mission about one year ago. The plaintiffs allege that agents of the Rescue Mission known as “Disciples” took and disposed of their personal property without their consent.

As this issue of the Community Alliance is going to the printer, we have heard that there is a settlement in the lawsuit against the Rescue Mission. We will provide the details in next month's paper.

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