By Paul Thomas Jackson
Editor’s note: This is the first article of a four-part series on Fresno’s anti-camping ordinance.
Mike Rhodes, despite initial reluctance on the part of the City of Fresno to recognize our First Amendment rights, did well to organize a protest of Fresno’s Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act as he did for Sept. 29, 2017. Misunderstood though we are amid the barrage of disinformation churned by the city and its minions, homeless advocates oppose the anti-camping ordinance that took effect the next day. Fresno may thereby keep pace with the councils of numerous other cities in California and other western states. But the city also outpaces the staggering local homeless population and ignores their fundamental rights, whose importance is as great as their needs are neglected.
Rhodes opened the evening with his statement of a vision of ending the local crisis of homelessness, a vision with which all can concur. Building consensus across personal and political differences on a view of what a home-full Fresno will look like is essential to solving it—even if there is no detailed road map to that destination. Community-wide consensus is always helpful to solving homelessness, which may be thought of as a failure of family and community regarding an individual’s life. Solving homelessness means restoring one’s connections to family and community, for one’s loss of those connections precipitates becoming homeless.
Meanwhile, economic pressures have borne down on that individual and his family and community, hastening their separation and his homelessness. At the regional and state levels, the housing crisis is a factor that generates homelessness in California and much of the country, straining our connections with people on the verge of homelessness. This factor lurks until the connection between people is broken and one’s home is lost through a set of tragic events unique in the life of each homeless individual.
The cynosure of Fresno’s street family, Dez Martinez, infused that September evening with her warm personality, yielding the floor to her homeless invitees’ recounts of personal struggles in the woefully underserved city, their clarity and thoughtfulness instilling hope in listeners and restoring the human connection, at least for that evening. Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Universalist Unitarian Church deepened that evening’s experience with his cogent, restorative words.
If it was fated only one person was to be arrested in the ensuing sleepover into the wee hours of Sept. 30, anyone acquainted with Dallas Blanchard might have guessed this civilly disobedient dude was destined to be the arrestee, defiantly using his blanket on the City Hall lawn. That evening, some words were also shakily spoken about the human body’s need for sleep, a need becoming exigent when that body belongs to an unsheltered person. And the need grows all the more urgent when the person is in an area lacking enough shelter beds to accommodate all similarly situated persons, as Fresno surely is.
Indeed, the city is vastly underserved, by whichever count you pick, as Rhodes has recently noted. Accordingly, the sentiment is widely felt that such a person should have the right to sleep in a public place, undisturbed—a right whose recognition likely every Community Alliance subscriber would cheerfully support. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit went so far as to recognize that right, as Los Angeles, too, lacks enough shelter beds for homeless people there, so that punishing them for the human body’s involuntary act of sleeping would be cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
As the western United States has experienced an acute housing crisis in recent years, so has homelessness in this part of the country. And so, too, have city councils’ use of the state’s coercive machinery to produce city governments’ inept response to this social problem.
The Fresno City Council attempts to correct that ineptness by adding mental health professionals to the staff on the homeless task force. And, however constrained by the coercive setting created by the ordinance, wherein a homeless person is to make a “voluntary” choice for one or more services—a choice to be under threat of arrest and loss of personal property—their professionalism is not in question here. But could even their professionalism compensate for the violation of constitutional rights?
Most voting constituents’ anti-homeless hue and cry— though not carried into the chambers on the evening of the passage of the anti-camping ordinance, at which anti-homelessness voices cautioning against its passage predominated—did carry Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and all but one Council member to support its passage, all seemingly unmoved except for Council Member Clint Olivier’s impressive crocodile tears.
Council Member Steve Brandau’s sponsorship of the ordinance, proclaimed online with the soon-deleted tweet “Bums GTFO,” belies his professed concern for the “real” homeless whom we are told not to mistake for “urban campers” targeted by the ordinance, which, despite its troubling vagueness on this point, he said would be used to target one subgroup and not the other.
Triumphantly running the “bums” out of town, Brandau and Brand admitted a “lack of expertise in the subject matter” of homelessness and deferred heavily to Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer’s perspective. That should give any concerned citizen pause to wonder, how—if one subgroup of unsheltered people (urban campers) is to be punished and the other (the “real” homeless) to be rewarded with services—the publicly elected confessors could proceed so confidently to devise this “tool” to sort out the truly needy from those “undesirables” who are so hellbent in their “unhealthy and dangerous” ways they opt for what may well be their only available shelter in the Central Valley’s intemperate climate.
Has the brazen “bum”-runner gotten off his own bum to learn the state and federal constitution?
Paul Thomas Jackson prepared the claims that paved the way for the homeless lawsuit that in 2008 settled for $2.35 million. Paul is now the secretary of the Fresno Homeless Advocates (FHA). He’s also its acting social media director, playing a key role in its Facebook group of more than 500 members. The FHA regularly meets at 6 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month. Notice is posted on the wall of the Facebook group.