By Bob McCloskey
On Oct. 14, at the regular Fresno City Council meeting, Council Member Miguel Arias said that the City of Fresno currently has $75 million in funds allocated for housing and homeless services. This federal and state funding remains unspent as thousands of unhoused residents languish in the streets.
Arias made his comment after Mayor Jerry Dyer made a statement about waiting for new state funding to create more housing. Dyer went on to say, in an apparent Brown Act violation, that the City is entering into contract negotiations with RH Builders to renovate five more motels.
Council President Luis Chavez shut down the mayor at this point, realizing there was a potential Brown Act violation occurring. All of this discussion resulted from Council Member Esmeralda Soria’s complaints about the City’s failure to “clean up” an encampment in “her district” at the canal at Palm and Dakota avenues.
The entire discussion was fraught with terms such as “trash,” “filth,” “cleaning up,” “they are in the neighborhoods” and more denigrating talk. Unfortunately, the mayor and entire Council tend to dehumanize our unhoused brothers and sisters.
One might ask, given that Soria is a member of the Governor’s Homeless Task Force, what exactly is she proposing to address the crisis locally? The State is planning to allocate another $22 billion for building more housing and addressing the homeless crisis.
This new funding comes just after a recent State Auditor’s report said that the State failed to allocate more than $300 million in federal emergency funding for the homeless, a reflection of the lack of planning and infrastructure at the state level.
Governor Newsom is now saying that there will be oversight and accountability for the new round of funding. In the past, the State Auditor has been highly critical of the lack of transparency and accounting of funding for housing and homeless services.
Recently, the City of Fresno complied with a request for information on the Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART), formerly known as the Homeless Task Force, a section of the Fresno Police Department. In the past, the task force has been abusive and even violent when interacting with the unhoused. The City now purports a kinder, gentler approach that remains unproven.
One requested document was the policy and procedure manual for the HART. The City provided Administrative Order 6-23 titled “Garbage Removal; Clean-Up of Temporary Shelters; and Code Enforcement Abatement Procedures.” This order was issued on Aug. 30, 2007, has never been revised and clearly reflects the City’s ongoing castigation of our unhoused neighbors.
The order’s one-sentence policy states: “The City of Fresno shall respond to complaints and concerns arising in and around areas in which individuals have erected temporary shelters in a manner that protects the public health and safety and which complies with applicable state and federal laws.”
The procedures consist of “garbage removal, enforcement of trespass laws and the clean-up of encampments.” These are the procedures and policies used to destroy homeless encampments and the personal property accumulated there.
Policy-wise, nothing has changed in 14 years. Although the City states that its policy complies with state and federal laws, the City violates current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines that remain in effect, exemplified by the recent forced removal of the unhoused from encampments.
Funding for the Homeless Task Force/HART exceeds a million dollars in the police department budget annually, going to salaries, fringe benefits and overtime pay for the deputy chief, a lieutenant, a sergeant and six officers. City employees from the Sanitation Division (seven) and the Code Enforcement Division (three) appear to be funded separately in the City’s budget and are not included in the information provided to the author.
The City is also contracting with the Poverello Hope Outreach Team (eight employees) and the Kings View Hero Team (six employees), also funded separately, and the City is currently seeking $750,000 in federal funding for the Poverello Outreach Team. Seven new positions, called community revitalization specialists, remain unfilled, to staff the Housing and Homeless division directed by H. Spees.
While the City spends millions on policing the homeless and is sitting on $75 million, it continues to fail to provide for basic human needs such as water and sanitation. The City Council made a commitment in April to provide sanitation services and mobile showers by July and has yet to do so (recently, a sole-source contract was proposed to purchase two mobile shower units for $260,000).
Water and sanitation are human rights under both international law and California’s AB 685, which made California, in 2012, the first state in the nation to recognize access to clean, safe water as a fundamental human right. However, the State (along with its counties and cities) is failing to guarantee unhoused residents that right.
California has no minimum standards for access to water and sanitation, and there is no enforcement mechanism to require compliance with AB 685. As a result, unhoused residents have less access to water and toilets than is required by international standards for refugee camps.
To address the ongoing crisis, we must establish minimum state standards for access to water and sanitation and incentivize compliance. The state can create incentives for new developments to include publicly accessible drinking fountains and toilets.
The City and County can ensure all public drinking fountains are operational, accessible and remain in good repair. They can ensure all public toilets are operational, accessible, clean, safe and in good repair. The City and County can provide ongoing basic services (potable water, toilets, hand washing stations, showers) at all encampments.
Of course, building alternative housing is the solution to providing sanitation. In the interim, supported safe camps and the provision of water and sanitation is the minimum the City and County should do.
It is time for the community to speak up. Contact the mayor and your City Council member. Ask them why the city is failing to spend available funding to provide housing and funding that is available to meet basic human needs.
Bob McCloskey is a freelance journalist and activist.