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Indybay Feature

Burning the Homeless out

by Mike Rhodes (editor [at]
This is a follow up to an earlier Indybay article about an eviction of homeless people at the Monterey and E street encampment in Fresno.
As I drove toward the Monterey and E street homeless encampment on Valentine’s Day, I could see a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky. When I got a little closer I could hear and then see the fire trucks screaming towards the smoke. They got there about 5 minutes ahead of me, but they already had most of the fire under control by the time I arrived.

I was going to the encampment to check out reports that the owner was going to bulldoze the vacant lot, inhabited by about 100 homeless people in downtown Fresno. See:

After taking a few photos of the scene I headed over to the police and what looked to be the fire department supervisor. I asked the officer if there was anything suspicious about the fire. He looked puzzled. I told him that the owner of the property had told the residents that he was going to bulldoze the encampment today. More puzzlement in the eyes of the two guys I was talking to. I said, “have you looked into the possibility that the owner started the fire to force the homeless from this area?” This the police officer seemed to understand and he assured me that nothing like that had happened. “How do you know that?” I asked. “Well, these people out here would make a complaint if something like that had happened. Oh, they do all kinds of things themselves, but if something happens to them they will file a complaint.”

Seemed to me that the officer had some bias against the homeless and unlike any other house fire in this town, there would be no investigation of what happened here. After all, these were just homeless people, squatting on somebody’s land. Arson? An attempt to evict the people that lived there? Obviously, the police or the fire department were not going to be bothered to investigate what had happened.

This is one of the realities of the homeless encampments in Fresno. There are a lot of fires, some of which are caused by candles and other light or heat sources. Sometimes, as Gloria (a homeless woman who used to live in the area) told me, there are people who will burn your house down because you owe them $10.

Several people told me that the fire on Valentine’s Day was not due to the vigilantism of the property owner, but was the result of a personal dispute.

The eviction by the owner, who told everyone he was going to bulldoze their property, did not happen. This is not unusual and has become a pattern in Fresno. What usually happens is that you have a property owner who may or may not care that homeless people are living on his property. He or she is contacted by someone from the City of Fresno (usually code enforcement or the police) and they are told they have to do something about the homeless encampment on their property.

If the owner does not move to dislodge the homeless the city official will ratchet up the pressure. This could be in the form of telling the owner that if they don’t remove the homeless, the city will do it and send them a bill for the clean up. Another approach I have seen them use is to threaten the owner, saying that if they don’t remove the homeless, they will make life more difficult for them. In one case they told a home owner with obvious code violations that if they did not remove the homeless people from their property they would come and do an inspection. If the homeless people move, then there will be no pesky government officials turning over every stone at your house to make sure you are in 100% compliance of all local, state, and federal laws. You get the idea.

In this case, the owner came out to the encampment on Monterey and E streets, with the fire department and the police watching his back (from a safe distance) as he threatened them with eviction and a bulldozer on Valentine’s Day. This created enough anxiety among the homeless that at least ½ of them moved away. That was the desired result. If the city and property owner can get the homeless to leave, without bringing out the bulldozer, that is a win for them.

Most homeless people don’t want to be a part of a confrontation and they will move on when threatened with the destruction of their property. Of course, they usually just move over to the next vacant lot and the process starts all over again.
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by Alex Williams
I just want to send a thanks to Mike Rhodes for following the story and updating the rest of us who couldn't be there. Your time and work are very much appreciated.
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