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A Walk Through Fresno’s Downtown Homeless Encampments

by Mike Rhodes (editor [at] fresnoalliance.com)
Update on the homelessness situation in Fresno.
I took a journalist from the Bay Area on a walking tour of the homeless encampments today. I have to admit that it has been a couple of months since I have done that and I want to tell you about some of the changes I saw.

We started at Santa Clara and E street, where there is a large and developed encampment, which has been there for quite a while. But, I think it is significantly larger now and starting to move around the corner towards Golden State Blvd. The thing that struck me about this encampment is that it is pretty clean and there are 3 portable toilets and a trash bin set up. Everyone I talked to gives credit to Rick and Brandon Morse for these services.

You would think the City of Fresno would be embarrassed to not provide these basic services to the people in this community that need them the most. Not only that, the City of Fresno is relentlessly attacking Rick and Brandon and trying to put them out of business. Rick and Brandon run the only medical marijuana dispensary in Fresno and with their profits they pay for the trash bins and portable toilets. Their business is a nonprofit 501 c 3 and this is the charitable work they do. Their trash bins and portable toilets were at all of the homeless encampments we visited today.

Moving on towards the Rescue Mission, I noticed that the Outdoor Drunk Tank had been moved. It is now on the south side of the mission. For those unfamiliar with what this is about - the police take homeless men (and possibly non homeless men too) to this Outdoor Drunk Tank as a way to avoid booking fees at the jail. They claim it saves the city money. I have a couple of problems with this operation.

1. It is for men only. How can it possibly be legal for the police to enforce public drinking laws one way for men and another way for women? Men get a pass and don’t go to jail. Women are taken to jail and booked. That is just wrong.

2. The staff at the Rescue Mission has no training in how to deal with a person if they are drunk and possibly in a dangerous medical situation because of alcohol poisoning. The tent they are put in can’t be that comfortable. When it is 110 degrees outside it has got to be dangerously uncomfortable. Likewise, when it is freezing, it has got to be uncomfortable. I have not heard about anybody dying there yet, but I can’t say for sure that they haven’t.

3. Larry Arce, the director of the Rescue Mission, told me years ago that he would try to convert people in the drunk tank to his reactionary interpretation of Christianity. So, a man who has been drinking too much in public is taken to the Rescue Mission by the police (it is either that or jail) and then he is subjected to the US version of the Taliban ranting at him? Does anyone else have a problem with this picture?

We then made our way to The Hill which is just packed with tents. There must be over 100 people living on The Hill now. We walked over the overpass and ended up at another encampment at the base of the overpass (on the H street side). This encampment has grown too and now has tents that go around the corner.

In this encampment lives a couple that have built a memorial to homeless people who have died recently. They also have a table with free food on it and lots and lots of bible versus on the walls. As I was looking at the memorial of homeless people who have died, just as I got to Pam Kincaid’s name, Steve rode his bike up and stopped next to me. Steve was Pam’s boyfriend when she died. Honestly, it was a little weird. Steve had this wild look in his eyes and started ranting at me about how everybody in the encampments thinks he beat up Pam, which led to her death. Cordelia (the women who maintains the memorial) and the Bay Area journalist moved away, because Steve seemed unstable and dangerous. I talked to him for a while about what was on his mind and then he rode off. He seemed like one very tormented soul, if you ask me. I don’t know for sure whether or not Steve beat Pam the day in July of 2007 when she went to the hospital. But, Pam had told me earlier that he did hit her. Steve swears the Fresno Police Department was involved in her beating. If you don’t know about the story of Pam Kincaid, see:

http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2007/08/18/18441458.php
http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2009/01/27/18566285.php

Last, but not least, we drove to the “sex offender” encampment, which is just south of Ventura on Santa Fe. This is where (penal code) 290's are forced to live because of the restrictions related to their release. There are an incredible number of people living there. It has to be well over 100 at this point. Many of these men are dropped off by there parole agents and told to live in this homeless encampment. My opinion - this can’t be good for the community or the men that are forced to live under these conditions.

Anyway, I just wanted to give everyone an update about what is going on at the encampments downtown.

I know City of Fresno Homelessness Czar Greg Barfield is saying that he is providing housing for some of the homeless, but there is no evidence that what he is doing is having any positive affect out there. Sure, you could argue that things might even be worse than they are, but I would counter that they are worse now than they were a year ago when he started.

I suppose I should add, that I don’t blame Greg for the homelessness problem. It is simply that the problem of homelessness is so big and the City of Fresno is putting so few resources into getting the homeless housing that Greg will never be able to catch up. Again, I will say that I believe this is a profound failure of the economic and political system in this city, state, and country. There are plenty of vacant houses and buildings available for the people that are homeless - the failure is that the people running “the system” have not prioritized coming up with a solution. That ends up leaving people like Greg, looking like they are involved in a scam or an illusion that they are doing something about homelessness, when the reality is that they are not making any progress. At best, they are treading water. At worst, they are making matters worse by giving the illusion that things are getting better, when in fact they are not.

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