Last winter in an e-mail to this reporter, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer said that “some people may not believe it, but I really do care about homeless people.” In January 2023, Fresno City Council Member Miguel Arias publicly lamented the fact that he sees lifeless bodies in the Tower District on his way to work because the “warming centers aren’t open.”
To their credit, Dyer, Arias and the City Council agreed to keep three warming centers open for extended periods during the wet winter of 2023. For the most part, there were few problems and the people who used the centers were grateful. Council Members Arias and Annalisa Perea visited the centers and agreed that they were at full capacity and were much appreciated as a safe, dry and warm place to sleep.
This winter, it’s a different story. Currently, the City of Fresno will only open warming centers for the unhoused when temperatures drop to 34 degrees, leaving unhoused people vulnerable to illness or even death. Last winter, several unhoused people did die from exposure and hypothermia.
While hypothermia is most common at extremely cold temperatures, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if you become chilled from rain, sweat or being in cold water. If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, memory loss or thyroid problems, it can set in.
Many medicines make it hard to regulate body temperature, and if you have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), you might have difficulty breathing in the cold. Many other health conditions put people at risk for hypothermia at temperatures higher than 34 degrees.
If you are unhoused, 37, 38 or 39 degrees is not much different than 34 degrees and you will have a miserable night without sleep at those temperatures. Unhoused folks often challenge the mayor and City Council members to sleep out on the cold winter streets of Fresno.
Prolonged exposure to homelessness has a significant negative effect on individuals that can result in death. Homelessness is much more than the absence of physical housing; it is a tension-filled, trauma-filled and treacherous condition that often results in injuries and fatalities.
Warming centers provide not only shelter from the cold but also a safe space to sleep. Sleeping centers should be available all year to give the vulnerable, especially women, a place safe from robbery, assault and rape.
The City should keep the current three warming centers open all winter. In addition, the City should restore a fourth warming center in north Fresno. Poverello House, the recipient of City funds to run the centers, should provide transportation to and from the centers.
The City should raise the temperature that triggers opening the centers to at least 40 degrees. And the centers should be open during wet weather. The centers should remain open on a consistent basis because when they are opened sporadically, people are not aware that they are open. In addition, unhoused residents are reluctant to pick up and move their possessions if a warming center is only open one night.
At the Jan. 11 City Council meeting, Arias claimed the warming shelters are open, knowing it was not true. The night before, Jan. 10, the temperature was 37 degrees and it was raining. All the warming centers were closed as per City policy.
Arias went on to say that unhoused people don’t want to use the warming centers and are “starting fires in the neighborhoods.” He seems to forget that he was at the warming centers last year and acknowledged then that they were at capacity.
Does Arias expect homeless people to passively die from the cold? People, obviously, build fires to stay warm. Arias could lobby to open the shelters all winter now to restore his credibility. There would also be a lot fewer fires if the centers were open.
The City has been the recipient of more than $300 million in state and federal funding in the past few years. No permanent housing has been established. All the funding has gone to temporary shelters and services.
Much of the funding has gone to salaries and benefits for service provider executives and staff of organizations such as the Poverello House. Some of the funding has gone to the Fresno Police Department’s Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART), which harasses people, forces people to move and throws away people’s possessions, including their survival gear.
City policy allows for the confiscation and discarding of personal property, including tents, sleeping bags and other basic survival gear of unhoused individuals. The policy and the practices of HART violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is cruel and unusual punishment.
Current policy provides for the opening of a warming center when temperatures drop to a chilling 34 degrees. A minimal amount of the City’s budget could be allocated to saving lives by keeping the warming centers open all winter. The fact remains that people are dying on the streets of Fresno from hypothermia and chronic conditions exacerbated by cold nighttime temperatures.
Supreme Court to Rule on Cruel and Unusual Punishment
On Jan. 12, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case of Johnson v. Grants Pass, Oregon. The case was filed by three unhoused individuals in Grants Pass based on the Sept. 18, 2018, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Martin v. Boise, Idaho. This decision held that punishing unhoused people for public camping violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The appeals court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, however, the City of Grants Pass appealed the decision and it will now be heard by the Supreme Court.
It could be the most important Supreme Court case about the rights of unhoused people in years. The case will decide whether cities and counties are allowed to punish people for things like public camping and loitering. Currently, Fresno policies and practices punish the unhoused on a daily basis, as regularly documented by homeless advocates.
“The National Homelessness Law Center fully expects the Supreme Court to protect the rights of people who are forced to live outside and to follow the consistent precedents set by lower federal courts,” says Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director of the National Homelessness Law Center.
“Cities remain free to use any of the many evidence-based approaches that end homelessness, like housing. All this case says is that, unless everybody has access to shelter that meets their needs, they cannot be arrested, ticketed or otherwise punished for sleeping. The Court’s ruling will have a tremendous impact on the 250,000 people who sleep outside on a given night.”
As cases make their way through the courts, Fresno continues to ignore court decisions and precedents. The mayor and City Council continue to punish and violate the rights of the unhoused residents of Fresno.
The people of Fresno who have a heart and some sympathy for others need to step up and contact the mayor and City Council regarding the City’s treatment of the unhoused.
- Tell them to open all four warming centers all winter.
- Tell them to either abolish the Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART) or order HART to stop violating the human rights and civil rights of those unfortunate enough to be on the hard, cold streets of Fresno.