By Mike Rhodes
We did a survey in February asking our readers what they thought about the Community Alliance. I was pleasantly surprised that 94.3% of respondents said they read the From the Editor column. Some readers commented that it helps to identify issues in the progressive community and that it is the first thing they read.
Wow! I’m honored that many of our readers take the time to read this article and find something of value here. For the last couple of months, I have written about efforts under way to build the progressive movement, amplify our voices for social and economic justice, and develop an electoral strategy to empower the majority who I believe support our progressive values. That effort is ongoing, and the next meeting of the progressive umbrella group will be March 4 at the Unitarian Univeralist Church. See the Peace and Social Justice Calendar for more details.
As many of you know, I’m also very interested in the homeless issue in Fresno. I have been writing about the homeless and supporting the effort to defend their human rights for the last 10 years. Recently, I was surprised when Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines began an aggressive defense of the City of Fresno’s policy on homelessness. He publicly criticized homeless advocates for not writing a proposal for safe and legal campsites, he called Edie Jessup a liar from the dais (when she suggested the City of Fresno has not done as much as it could to help the homeless) and he has insisted that we should focus on the County of Fresno (because he thinks they should be doing more to help the homeless) instead of City Hall.
I can certainly understand why Baines wants to send us off to attack the county because that would take the heat off City Hall. His protestations notwithstanding, the fact remains that it is the City of Fresno (not the county) that bulldozed all of the homeless encampments last fall. It is the City of Fresno that has directed the police to threaten the homeless with arrest because they are sleeping on the sidewalk (as if they had some better place to go!).
The City of Fresno has passed several ordinances to harass the homeless. For example:
- Homeless people are prevented from asking for assistance on median islands. The Fresno City Council passed an ordinance that prohibits the homeless from asking for help but allows other groups (e.g., Kid’s Day) to use the median islands to raise money.
- The City of Fresno passed an ordinance that prohibits homeless people from pushing or using a shopping cart.
- The City of Fresno (not the county) passed an ordinance to stop homeless people from “aggressive” (a term open to interpretation) panhandling.
- As recently as last month, the Fresno City Council was considering a camping ordinance that would prevent homeless people from sleeping on any city property. They did assure us however, that this ordinance would apply to the rich as well as the homeless—as if those who live on the bluffs in north Fresno want to camp out on Santa Clara Street.
It was the City of Fresno, under Mayor Ashley Swearengin, that removed all funding from the city budget to address homeless issues. Instead, she started a nonprofit 501(c)(3) to privatize helping the homeless. When I asked homeless czar Greg Barfield what was being done with the money in Fresno First Steps Home (FFSH; their nonprofit), he said he didn’t have to tell me because it was not a government project. That is probably because, as we found out later, all it had done was to print up cards telling people not to give money to the homeless. The card suggested homeless people call 211, which I’m told (by the homeless) offers them no help. The FFSH also used some of its money to pay for corporate filing fees.
It is the City of Fresno that decided it would shut down the warming centers this year due to budget cutbacks. Instead, it used more than $200,000 to demolish the homeless encampments and send the police on repeated raids, taking whatever the homeless were using to keep themselves warm—tents, tarps, sleeping bags, warm clothes, firewood. They even came out and extinguished homeless people’s fires.
If I sound a little peevish about the issue of being told to focus on the County of Fresno, try to understand: It seems painfully obvious to me the reason why city officials want us to go chasing after other government entities and not hold them accountable. Not only has the city been (in my opinion) criminally negligent of helping the homeless, but it has also violated their civil and human rights. If they can get us to chase our tails, they think they can get off the hook for their bad behavior. That is not going to happen.
As far as Baines beating us up about not giving him a proposal for safe and legal campsites (he did this at several public meetings) and then refusing to work with us when we did present him with a proposal, well, you can come to your own conclusions. He claimed that he was not going to work with us because the ACLU was filing a lawsuit against the city. But, as I write this column, there has been no lawsuit filed and his excuse is starting to look like smoke and mirrors to me.
Even if there was a lawsuit, that would not prohibit Baines from supporting the proposal and trying to get it passed at City Hall. This is one of the extremely frustrating aspects of trying to work within the system to accomplish needed changes. They make it next to impossible to work with them, and you end up spinning your wheels and wasting time. In the end, legal action may be the only way to force them to stop hurting the homeless.
Some homeless advocates would like to see more demonstrations to protest the City of Fresno’s wanton disregard for the homeless. Others are pushing for alternative systems that basically do what the City of Fresno should be doing. Some of these include the following:
- Providing food and clothing for the homeless—the Firewood Brigade, Food Not Bombs, etc.
- Putting portable toilets and trash bins at the encampments (the Community Alliance has already set up three portable toilets at the encampments).
- Holding public forums to bring the issue to the public and develop a strategy on homeless issues.
- There are other, more radical proposals for direct action that homeless advocates would like to use to prod the City of Fresno to stop the assault on the homeless.
You can depend on the Community Alliance to keep you informed about what is being done to help the homeless and defend their human rights.