Homeless Encampments in Fresno–the Mainstream Media & the Advocate Response

Fresno Bee Editorial

October 24, 2013

EDITORIAL: Illegal camps are cleared, but Fresno homeless need shelter
City should set up temporary camp for those awaiting housing.
Evidence of the gaping hole in Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s plan to deal with rampant homelessness can be seen all over the city.
Homeless people are living behind businesses, along freeways and on the San Joaquin River bottom. Some are squatting in vacant homes and garages. During the day, they panhandle for cash and congregate near parking-lot recycling centers, where they turn in cans, bottles and cardboard for money.
The Swearengin administration is doing the right thing by clearing out the illegal homeless encampments downtown. These encampments were unsanitary and unsafe and created intolerable conditions for nearby residents and businesses.
The mayor’s goal of helping the homeless gain independence through “housing first” is also laudable. This strategy provides immediate housing to individuals for stability and then attempts to treat the causes that put them on the streets.
Swearengin deserves credit, too, for launching Fresno First Steps Home, which provides funding to nonprofits and agencies helping the homeless.
But there’s a fatal flaw in her homeless plan: housing is expensive and limited, and Fresno has an estimated 4,000 homeless. With the closing of the illegal encampments, most of them are left with nowhere to go but the street.
We recognize the city’s stressed finances. But skilled leadership can move mountains at bargain rates. The mayor should assemble a team of city staff, homeless advocates and community leaders to set up a temporary emergency camp.
The camp should have rules, toilets, wash areas and security. It must be fenced and located in an area without adjacent businesses and homes. Most of all, it should be temporary.
Long term, Fresno needs a permanent, dormitory-style place for homeless waiting to transition into housing.
San Antonio, Texas, for example, has the 37-acre Haven for Hope, a nonprofit facility that can house up to 1,500 men, women and children.
Haven for Hope’s greatest asset perhaps is its more than 80 federal, state and community partnerships.
It will require that kind of teamwork in Fresno to successfully address our homeless problem.


To: FresnoHomelessAdvocates@yahoogroups.com
From: MikeRhodes@comcast.net
Date: Thu, 24 Oct 2013 21:54:47 -0700
Subject: [FresnoHomelessAdvocates] Responding to The Fresno Bee editorial

The Fresno Bee printed an editorial (see below) about the homeless in this morning’s paper.  Several people have asked me what I thought about it.
What I liked about the Fresno Bee editorial was that it made a strong statement about the need to do something for the thousands of homeless people who are living on the streets right now.  The mayor’s narrative is that homeless encampments are bad and that she wants to put people into housing.  That is a nice and simple message that plays well in the media, but the problem is that there is a huge gap between destroying the encampments and when homeless people get a voucher and into an apartment.  This is something that I have been talking about for years.  While I find it hard to believe that the mayor thinks that you can destroy homeless peoples shelters and then VIOLA, they are all in housing, that is what she is saying.  The Bee just called her out on her faulty logic.  I get that she is trying to be “positive,” but there is such a huge disconnect between what she is saying and reality, people can’t help but notice.
Aside from The Bee’s acknowledgment that this GAP exists, I did not like the analysis or the solutions they offer.  For example, they wrote “The Swearengin administration is doing the right thing by clearing out the illegal homeless encampments downtown.”  I disagree.  The homeless encampment they destroyed yesterday was a calm place with a stable group of people who looked out for each other.  The owner of the land did not mind that the homeless were there, but was coerced into having them removed, rather than be fined by the City of Fresno for the clean up.  At least that is what the owner told the people who lived there.  The Grain Silo encampment was just a poor neighborhood that homeless people lived in because they could not afford to live somewhere else.  The camp provided protection from predators and there was always someone around to look after a neighbors property if a resident left for a while.  Without having neighbors you can trust, people are more vulnerable.  How is it better for a woman to live alone out in the open or under an oleander bush, without neighbors to protect her?  Homeless encampments provide protection and stability for people who find themselves in very difficult circumstances.
Also, having thousands of people displaced from the encampments in the downtown area is going to be a problem for the health and safety of everyone.  At least when people lived in these encampments we could provide them with portable toilets and trash bins.  That is no longer the case.  Where do you think all of that waste is going to end up now?
The Bee’s solution is to put homeless people into a big encampment that “must be fenced and located in an area without adjacent businesses and homes.”  Great!  First City Hall tells people that the homeless are criminals, they destroy their shelters, take their property and now they want to put them in a concentration camp in some remote location?  This has been done before and the outcome is not good.
The answer is decentralized safe and legal places for the homeless to live.  Homeless advocates wrote a proposal to do this in January 2012.  A copy of that proposal is also below.
Mike Rhodes
Community Alliance Newspaper
PO Box 5077
Fresno Ca 93755
(559) 978-4502 (cell)


The Need
The City of Fresno allowed homeless encampments to exist and grow for several years but in the past couple of months has cleared out all the major encampments in the city. This dislocation has resulted in thousands of homeless people in Fresno having no safe and legal place to live.
Existing shelters cannot house all of the homeless who are now sleeping on sidewalks and other locations not intended for human habitation. As temperatures dipped below freezing in late December, one woman died as she slept on the sidewalk outside of the Poverello House. Many others are sick with pneumonia and other illnesses related to their exposure to the cold weather.
The cost to city and county government, if we allow the situation to continue as it currently exists, will be enormous. The price of providing emergency medical care and hospitalization would be dramatically reduced if we redirected those dollars to provide the homeless with a safe and legal place to live.
Although the city’s goal of decent, affordable and permanent housing for everyone is a good goal, we all know that it cannot be achieved anytime soon. Therefore, there will be homeless people who do not make it into a shelter and have no place to sleep. It is with those people in mind, and there are currently thousands of them in the City of Fresno, that this proposal is intended to assist.
Safe and Legal Campsites
The fastest and easiest way to dramatically improve life for the homeless would be to allow them to construct shelters and provide them with basic public services. With shelters like tents, the homeless can get out of the rain and stay considerably warmer than if they have no protection from the rain, wind and cold.
These encampments will exist on public and private land. The City of Fresno could determine which property it owns that will be used for these encampments. The city will allow encampments to be developed, through a conditional use permit, for any owner of property who wanted to use his/her land for that purpose. The city will work with other state, federal or county governmental entities to facilitate the use of the land for encampments.
Initially, Phase I of this proposal seeks to allow the establishment of encampments at existing sites, with limited development of infrastructure. A longer-term project will see some infrastructure put into place to better serve the needs of the homeless residents.
These campsites will be self-governing and not overseen by any social service agency or government entity. The residents will be like any other group of people living in a small neighborhood. They will be provided with drinking water, portable toilets and trash pickup. Those services could be paid for by the city, county, community groups, churches, and/or individuals.
The individuals living in these safe and legal homeless encampments will be responsible for maintaining the campsite. No illegal activity will be permitted in the camp. If there are legal problems, they will be handled in the same way as they are in any other neighborhood in Fresno.
These campsites will be distributed throughout the city and consist of no more than 100 residents per encampment. The purpose of the multiple locations is an acknowledgment that homeless people live throughout the community, and the intention is to equitably distribute the encampments throughout the city as much as possible. The purpose of limiting each camp to 100 people or less is to avoid concentrating the homeless in one location and impacting any single area with a high density of homeless people.
Possible campsites include vacant lots, churches, parks and unused government property.
Phase I of this proposal will start immediately and utilize the areas where the homeless are already living. Phase I will allow the homeless to construct simple structures (tents and tarps) and live in them until something better is available. This will take away the stigma of living illegally and being told to “move on,” when there is nowhere better to move on to. This decriminalization of poverty is an important first step in allowing people to live with dignity and respect.
Phase I will provide every group of 10 or more homeless people living together with basic public services (drinking water, toilets, and trash service). Providing the homeless with these services will not only dramatically improve their lives but also clean up our. Having access to drinking water should be a service provided to every citizen of this community, whether rich or poor.
Phase II, which will take a couple of months to start, will seek new locations for the homeless encampments. These new locations will have improved infrastructure and might be associated with a church or a community group, or they could be independent and located on property owned by someone who allows the encampment on his/her property.
The range of shelters in Phase II might include tents, wooden buildings, modified tool sheds and other structures deemed appropriate by the residents. Although residents in the Phase II development might stay for a while, none of these encampments is intended to be permanent. The goal is to work with the residents, address any issues they have that are holding them back and get them into decent and affordable housing as soon as possible.
The primary goal of phase one and two of this project is to improve the lives of the homeless while saving taxpayers money and improving public safety.  By stabilizing and improving their lives, it will improve their chances of getting a job and/or getting the help they need from social service agencies. That assistance ranges from health services, mental health services, alcohol or drug addiction treatment, job training or getting a better education. Being in a stable location will help the homeless get the assistance they need.
A cost-benefit analysis of this proposal would show that it will save the taxpayers money. Our streets, businesses and residential neighborhoods will benefit by providing homeless people with basic public services. Homeless people will benefit by improved living conditions, better contact with social service agencies and ultimately getting into a house.
Phase III, We recognize that there is both an independent and resourceful spirit among homeless people. A portion of the population will never be served by traditional housing. Additionally, many homeless individuals posses underutilized construction skills or the capacity to learn those skills.
In Phase III we would like to identify location(s) suitable for the development of permanent self sustaining communities that are being designed by architect Arthur Dyson and the non-profit organization, Eco-Village. At an location agreeable to the residents and the jurisdictions, an Eco-Village will be planned for phased development. Residents that will work on the site will establish a temporary camp on site. Through sweat equity and volunteers labor the shared facilities (bathrooms, kitchen, community space, etc.) and individual dwellings will be built and occupied by the residents.
The work will be guided by tradesmen and trained professionals.
Alternatively, the City or County may determine an existing unused public facility that it desires to convert for use as shelter. Like with the Eco-Village, a temporary camp will be located on site and homeless individuals will work on the adaptation of the facility for shelter. In turn they will gain skills and earn equity in the final product.
Additional suggestions are to establish true 24/7 Emergency Shelter for up to 30 days, following acquiring federal funding for Emergency Shelter and Services.  Development of transitional housing for up to 2 years.  We also support a permanent housing development utilizing existing and foreclosed homes in Fresno and the new affordable housing being developed as part of Housing First.