By Paul Thomas Jackson
(Editor’s Note: Part 2 of this article will be published in the June edition)
In our present economic system, the dominant element—capital—plays its normal role on the main stage of society while dressed in green: money. Having gone off the gold standard since 1934, U.S. currency is based entirely on the seldom-spoken promise to repay a debt. Every coin, bill and other note is a symbol of that promise. Those physical objects, which represent that abstract idea, hover around those of us who participate in the above-ground economy. As we exchange goods and services among ourselves, the system in which we are partaking leaves piddling resources for homeless people and others whom capitalism has apparently rejected. They are of no use to the system, it would appear.
Now there is an underground economy in which very poor people, might participate: Junkyards lying at the south end of Fresno, and farther south, bring promising economic opportunities to some very poor people, who salvage parts for engines and other automotive systems and sell them to a repair shop in your neighborhood. If you drive a used car and have bought used parts for it, it’s likely you’ve profited by the skilled labor of a very poor person—probably homeless—who bargained with the repairman near the back door to the shop. And you’ve thereby helped that person avoid panhandling and other situations risking criminal conviction, which tend to drive a homeless person deeper into homelessness.
But for the most part, the state of affairs—that of homelessness within the world’s wealthiest society—is somewhat like a game of musical chairs, usually lost by extremely poor people. In this cruel game that our society plays on them, one reason they could end up chair-less is decreased mobility. Indeed, there is a higher rate of disability in the homeless population. Or their failure to secure seating (housing) may be due to preoccupation with past traumas in their lives. Yet, it is we, the stably housed, who might be deluding ourselves more deeply in our grand monetary scheme, which is based on a promise, a kind of mass delusion, that may someday prove empty or that was always false.
Still, while that promise remains plausible and money is regarded as valuable, it takes some money to solve homelessness. Food and land are in abundance in this blessed valley. If used wisely, these goods are of aid in achieving that solution. While about two dozen agencies or nonprofits work tirelessly on the local crisis of homelessness, the Fresno Homeless Advocates have noted a lack of vision on the part of some officials in local government. The Jewish proverb— “Without a vision the people perish”—has literally come true in the lives of some of the unsheltered people who in 2013 were deprived of their makeshift encampments, exposing them to the elements.
The 2006 lawsuit, which settled at $2.35 million, began with the filing of unsheltered people’s administrative claims in the appropriate office of the City. Those claims stated the City committed the tort of conversion against them. That is, the City converted or changed the essential nature of their personal property without their permission or other legal justification. And the fact that it put a person’s property in the city dump certainly suggests it was done without his or her permission. The City could have settled the claims within the six months after they were filed, but officials chose not to. Instead, they chose to allow the claims to reach the court, which found the City liable.
Long before going to court, homeless advocates here pleaded and pleaded that the City temporarily should store the property as required by law. Ignoring our pleas, the City kept disposing of property outright. That persistent violation of property rights did not merely amount to violation of due process, making a governmental action null and void. It was not insulated from liability just because City workers wore yellow jumpsuits and masks while doing it, as counsel might have supposed. No, a City—not unlike a person—has to respect the rights of (homeless) people to own personal property. The alternative to this legal conclusion would be “eminent domain” without due process or just compensation—something that nobody desires, whether identifying oneself on the left or right side of the political spectrum.
Fortunately, since 2013, plans to abate encampments have been made with greater forethought. As in the case of the Mendota encampment, officials have reached out to service providers, who in turn send intake staff, anticipating human tragedy as they arrive on the morning of the scheduled abatement. The workers abate the abatement, as it were.
Curiously, deprivation of a person’s only available shelter is carried out for purposes of “health and safety.” A seeming paradox of the musical-chairs game is the lawfulness of “abatement” (destruction) of encampments to serve that public policy. It would appear lawful to die of exposure to the elements, since the government has no duty to care for those beyond the ambit of due process of any welfare program or while having been outside the custody of a government employee.
But it’s unlawful for the government to countenance the (life-sustaining) encampments, which did violate fire, housing, and other health and safety requirements. And while compliance with those requirements normally serves the purposes their underlying policies, the question remains, at least for unsheltered people, how well is the enforcement of those requirements serving the purpose?
Questions such as these may never occur to the officials, who rely on their legal counsel as they’re legally entitled to do. Counsel advises them to stay clearly within the statutory requirements of a city government. In general, this conservative approach has merit; it usually insulates a city from liability. Yet, Fresno’s track record is not without liability. In California, a city, as any municipality, faces liability if it commits the tort of conversion, discussed above. Another possibility is violation of one’s civil rights, such as by unequal enforcement of the law, which would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Are housing codes being enforced with equal vigor against slumlords?)
Paul Thomas Jackson is an L.A. native who first came to live in Fresno in 1996, transferring to Fresno State as a Public Administration major. A decade later, he prepared the claims that paved the way for the homeless lawsuit that settled for $2.35 million. He now administers the Fresno Homeless Advocates’ Facebook group of about 200 members.