Fresno’s Homeless Seek More Warmth

Homeless advocate Dez Martinez in front of the warming center at the Ted C.Wills Community Center at dawn on Jan. 9. Photo by Peter Maiden
Homeless advocate Dez Martinez in front of the warming center at the Ted C.Wills Community Center at dawn on Jan. 9. Photo by Peter Maiden

Bitterly cold nights in the San Joaquin Valley this winter have homeless people struggling to stay warm. On a frigid Jan. 9 morning, people from the Homeless Union pleaded with City of Fresno officials to expand the hours of warming centers, add more centers and continue providing free transportation to warm spaces. It is estimated that there are 4,000–5,000 homeless persons in the city.

Imagine sleeping out and in the rough when the frost lays heavily on the ground all around. That is the shivering fate of many homeless people in Fresno. The winters can be long with days cold and nights bone-chilling.

Last year, officials opened warming facilities in the city’s community centers. But those facilities also provide a wide spectrum of neighborhood services and recreation activities. So, homeless people who stay the night must leave at 7 a.m., which happens to be the coldest hour of the day.

As people filed out of the Ted C. Wills Community Center on that cold January morning, the Homeless Union held a press conference to demand that the City expand its services.

Dez Martinez, Fresno’s most vocal and persistent advocate for decent treatment of the unhoused, stated their demands, “The Fresno Homeless Union is urging the City to maintain the warming centers open throughout the winter and demanding to continue the same schedule as the previous year [with] the centers to be open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. starting today until March 1, 2024.

“[And that] the City of Fresno [and the] Department of Transportation (FAX) continue to provide free transportation to and from the centers for anyone who needs to reach a City of Fresno warming center using existing FAX bus routes.”

Currently, the temperature must drop to 34 degrees for warming centers to open. That ignores the fact that temperatures well above that can be not only cold but also life-threatening.

One advocate who spoke was Bearman, a lady with a gray ponytail and a ready smile in a wheelchair, “I am one of the unhoused here. And as you can see, I’ve got two pets.

“The cold weather has really affected me because I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). I have other physical ailments that cause me not to be able to walk, and this cold weather is just horrendous.

“We need these centers open. I’ve been out in the rain soaking wet, nowhere to go. We need these.”

All the other homeless folks that were there told of similar experiences.

Martinez urged the City to expand bus service to warming centers later into the night and create more warm spaces, especially in north Fresno. Underscoring the urgent need for improved services, she quoted City Council Member Miguel Arias, who represents much of central and south Fresno.

If the City could not meet the Homeless Union’s demands, Martinez asked the City to at least raise the temperature that triggers the opening of the centers to 40 degrees, that the centers operate during wet weather and that they remain open on a regular basis.

“Let’s not forget the most powerful words that Miguel Arias spoke last year to advocate for us in order to keep the centers open,” said Martinez. “He said, ‘I am the one who has to drive through the Tower [District], seeing bodies laying there lifeless because the warming centers are not open and they should have been.’”

Arias was in attendance and replied that the City will consider the demands presented by the Homeless Union. “I think it’s important that we hear from the unhoused community directly and the advocates.

“Last year was our first year where we kept these centers continuously open. They did save quite a bit of lives.

“This is the second year that we’re doing this, and we’ll be looking today to make some adjustments. I’ve been visiting all the warming centers every morning and night to check in on what’s working and what’s not.

“The administration right now has the flexibility to keep them open on additional days. And we’ll be meeting with them this afternoon to see how we proceed with the need out there.”

Arias explained that people spending the night on the street or in vacant buildings often start bonfires to keep warm. That has been a concern for people living in those neighborhoods because of safety issues and the smoke pollution.

He adds that warming centers are usually below capacity with room to spare. The City’s aim, he says, is to get more people to those places. But communication and transportation are a challenge.

“There’s still room for more people to come into the warming centers,” says Arias, “and I’m hopeful that the unhoused community will take advantage of that, especially as we start enforcing the elimination of public open fires in residential neighborhoods that put the whole neighborhood at risk.”

Arias said that local churches have been asked to provide warm spaces but have declined to do so.

Fresno has a split personality regarding the unhoused. The City has provided some housing in old motels and offers other services such as warming and cooling centers.

Arias said that there are fewer people at the warming centers this year because they now have housing. But those still on the street are swept away by the City’s homeless task force. Martinez says that is why keeping the warming centers open is essential.

 “Currently, without keeping these warming centers open, the [Fresno Police Department’s] homeless task force will be out at least hitting 10 camps and removing shelter and blankets from individuals today,” explains Martinez.

“If we continuously allow the Fresno Police Department to search, seize and destroy our shelter and our warmth, then we will have more deaths on our streets.

“So, we are asking that they seize and stop all sweeps in the city of Fresno until they figure out if they’re going to continue to have the warming centers open.”

In addition to the Ted C. Wills Community Center, the City provides overnight warming space at two other community centers: Maxie L. Parks in southwest Fresno and Mosqueda in southeast Fresno. The City has also partnered with Poverello House to provide a warm night and meals.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on another warming center retrofitted from a former thrift store in northern Fresno.

Fresno received $17 million from the state in 2023 to help improve conditions for the unhoused population. Homeless advocates continue to press civic leaders to spend it to provide more actual housing.

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