The average age of death of a homeless person is about 50. They die from preventable and treatable illnesses. Photo by Peter Maiden.

Death, Corruption and Ideology

The community was recently outraged by streaming video of unhoused people being put out in the cold rain on the streets of Fresno as part of the city’s Project Freeway Off-Ramp. Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, in the Fresno Bee, justified the Project Freeway sweeps by saying that “we had three individuals who were struck by vehicles and killed this last month, pedestrians on our freeway, [a] homeless population that should not have been there.”

District 5 Supervisor Nathan Magsig has said that “some (homeless) people don’t want help.”

It seems some of our elected “leaders” have the audacity to blame the victims of city and county incompetence, failures and, frankly, callousness. Sadly, there have been many recent deaths on the streets and freeways of Fresno.

On July 14, 2019, we saw the tragic death of a baby girl, just three months old, who was on the street for all her too-short life. Her mother spoke at a Fresno City Council meeting, pleading for help, just three months earlier.

This year, an unsheltered man was found dead on Feb. 10 in northeast Fresno. On Jan. 24, an unsheltered man was shot in the back for no apparent reason and died.

These are but a few devastating examples of what happens to local unsheltered folks. Many others have died on the streets of Fresno and Fresno County. Thousands are dying on the streets of America.

The reasons for such deaths include “natural” causes, suicide, homicide and hypothermia. These causes could all be prevented with adequate healthcare and housing. For those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart conditions, it is hard to get treatment, see a doctor and get follow-up care.

Homelessness can be a cause of physical and mental illness. When a person becomes isolated, loses dignity and has nowhere to go, the downhill process begins. Most people in that situation experience stress, depression, fear and other emotions that directly affect mental and physical health.

The causes of higher morbidity and mortality rates among the unhoused are related to the lack of access to stable affordable housing, nutritious foods, transportation, employment and quality health services, treatment and insurance.

The average age of death of a homeless person is about 50. They die from preventable and treatable illnesses.

Communicable diseases are spread because of the crowded, poorly ventilated living conditions found in many shelters.

Studies have shown that the risk of death on the streets is only moderately affected by substance abuse or mental illness, which are health problems. Health conditions such as heart problems or cancer are more likely to lead to an early death on the streets. The inability to get proper rest, maintain medications, eat well, stay clean and stay warm prolongs and accelerates illnesses, sometimes leading to death.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the unhoused population in the United States “will be twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die as the general population,” according to a recent report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. As a result of the incompetent pandemic response, the actual numbers of infections and deaths are not yet known.

“There’s an ad hoc nature to not just the response to this crisis just generally speaking, but with the data tracking,” notes Daniel Treglia, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. “Testing has been incredibly limited, and therefore the numbers are based on how many people are symptomatic, and we know those are understatements.”

Reports by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that the pandemic has hit homeless shelters. One report on four cities—Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Atlanta—found that 25% of residents in 19 shelters tested positive for the virus from March 27 to April 15, 2020.

Another CDC report on three homeless service sites in the state of Washington concluded that Covid-19 was diagnosed in 18% of residents and 21% of staff. The same report noted that Covid can spread rapidly in homeless shelters, therefore rapid interventions, including testing and isolation, are necessary.

On Feb. 18, the City of Fresno released a report on the Covid-19 response and how some of the emergency federal and state funding is being used.

First, the report is short on details and raises some questions. The report states that Fresno County, the Fresno Housing Authority (FHA), the City of Fresno and the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC) received $157.5 million in Covid emergency funding in 2020. Of these emergency funds, the city has spent $30 million for motel purchases and emergency shelter bed increases. It is unknown how the other agencies are using this funding. (FMCoC received $37.3 million, Fresno County received $37.7 million and the FHA received $24.1 million.) The current number of shelter bed increases mentioned in the report is only 473.

Second, the only people involved in decisions on how this funding is used are social service providers, government agencies and hospitals. There is zero input from homeless advocates or the homeless themselves.

Third, the document is short on details and reflects the lack of transparency and accountability referred to in the recent critical Grand Jury report. The issues of homelessness are complicated, but emergency funding is there to help the homeless with services and housing and most of it is not being used to do that. A full investigation is required. A much longer report with full financial details is necessary.

While temporary solutions such as low-barrier self-managed camps are ignored (such as the Dream Camp organized by activist Dez Martinez), millions of dollars are doled out to developers to renovate hotels and motels at the cost of $100,000 per unit.

Asked if the City would support the Dream Camp with access to a nearby water line, H. Spees, the mayor’s spokesperson, responded, “It’s only 12 people” and made no commitment. Ironically, Mayor Dyer recently bragged at a press conference that the City had housed just 14 people in a renovated hotel.

One thing the City could do immediately is provide an 800 number for those in need of a shelter bed to call for centralized information on availability.

On Dec. 22, 2012, a Fresno Bee reporter, George Hostetter, wrote about a federal Housing and Urban Development report that confirmed the following:

  • A million dollars was blown on a project that never got off the ground.
  • On another project, $200,000 was wasted.
  • More than $5 million was spent on “code enforcement” with no justification for it.
  • According to the report, these are just a few of the “taxpayer-funded disasters” made by the City.
  • The report states the big problem is an unfocused housing policy that was allowed to drift along.

In April 2016, Mike Rhodes, an independent journalist and then the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper, spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church on the City of Fresno’s history of involvement in housing issues. Referring to his book, Dispatches from the War Zone, he said, “It wasn’t until I wrote this book—you know when I was working on it about a year ago or so—that I finally got the IRS records from Fresno First Steps Home when they got started. And I found that for the first three years of their group, they didn’t give any money to any homeless project.

“I went to the grand opening of the Renaissance at Santa Clara in November of 2012. The $11 million grant project was built to provide just 69 340-square-foot [units] to help end homelessness in Fresno. If you do the math, that is more than $159,000 per unit.”

Rhodes concluded that “opening the Renaissance created the illusion that progress is being made to end homelessness while leaving the overwhelming majority of people still on the streets…Why did they spend $11 million to get 69 people off the street?”

One revelation in the financial information was that the Penstar Group got the contract to build the Renaissance at Santa Clara Project. Penstar is a Fresno-based developer headed by CEO Tom Richards, who also serves as chair of Fresno’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and Fresno First Steps Home. Conflict of interest? Penstar received $1 million as the consultant on the Renaissance project.

Finally, the sheer enormity of the millions coming into Fresno at this time to house the unsheltered, and the minimal results, beg the question of whether there is corruption. Perhaps another federal Housing and Urban Development investigation is needed.

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