Homeless people in downtown Fresno can no longer set up encampments. They must put up a tent in the evening and take it down early in the morning. During the day, they have to stay with their property or it will be taken and put into storage. Photo by Mike Rhodes

From the Departing Editor – December 2013

Chip Ashley (left) is the new Community Alliance newspaper editor. Mike Rhodes (right), who has been the editor of this paper since June 1998, is moving on to explore new opportunities (like writing books, traveling and spending more time with his wife Pam). Photo by Richard Stone
Chip Ashley (left) is the new Community Alliance newspaper editor. Mike Rhodes (right), who has been the editor of this paper since June 1998, is moving on to explore new opportunities (like writing books, traveling and spending more time with his wife Pam). Photo by Richard Iyall

I enjoy reading the Letters to the Editor. It has always been one of my favorite sections in any newspaper because it gives readers a chance to give feedback about what issues and articles are important to them. As the editor of the Community Alliance, I get phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, texts, snail mail and people stopping me on the street to give me a piece of their mind. Most of the feedback is positive and some articles in this newspaper generate more comments than others. The articles about the mental health issue in the Fresno County Jail (“Freefall into Madness”) generated comments from all over the state.

Last month’s feature story on the Fulton Mall created the kind of a buzz that makes me proud to be the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. The series of articles gave an alternative perspective to the narrative being told by the bureaucrats at Fresno City Hall, some developers and business interests. If you are tuned into the mainstream media, the only thing you are likely to hear is the drumbeat for bringing cars back to the Fulton Mall as a way to save downtown. The mayor and her allies are good at getting their message out—so good that most people will never have the opportunity to read or hear the well-reasoned and articulate alternative that we presented in last month’s paper.

We received a letter to the editor this month from a reader who says, “I consider myself progressive” and goes on to articulate a well-reasoned argument for why she supports returning cars to the Fulton Mall. While I appreciate and we will print alternative points of view, I think it is significant to note that the writer (who did not identify her employer) is a staff person of the Downtown Fresno Partnership (DFP). That affiliation is significant because the mayor is on the DFP’s Board of Directors and its Web site says that the DFP “and the City of Fresno advocate for a return of traffic to this traditional main street.” I believe it is important to know the source of your information, so you (the reader) can make an accurate determination about its value. Transparency matters.

When you read about an issue like the Fulton Mall in the Community Alliance newspaper, you know that it is not there at the behest of developers, builders, big business interests or the power elite. As an alternative/independent newspaper, we proudly provide the perspective of those working for environmental, social and economic justice. The articles about the Fulton Mall in last month’s newspaper were first published in the Sierra Club Tehipite Topics newsletter (which we mentioned on page 1), and they make excellent arguments for maintaining public art on a car-free mall. They also go into the history of how city government politics (mixed with corruption) got us to where we are today. I know there are people who want to make (big) piles of money displacing the existing business owners on the Fulton Mall, tearing up the street and turning it into a “theme park” like shopping center, similar to River Park (where there is no river and no park), but I think they can be stopped.

Yes, some people claiming to be “progressive” think we should use the Community Alliance to promote the interests of greedy developers, but they can get their message out on the 95% of the media in this town that is corporately owned. This space will be used to challenge the dominant paradigm, empower poor and working people, and build a powerful movement for progressive change.

The Homeless

Homeless people are having their property taken from them at an alarming rate. The City of Fresno is taking their property and putting it in these containers—it is where hope goes to die. Without coats, tents and sleeping bags, homeless people in Fresno will suffer and some will die this winter. Is this the final solution?
Homeless people are having their property taken from them at an alarming rate. The City of Fresno is taking their property and putting it in these containers—it is where hope goes to die. Without coats, tents and sleeping bags, homeless people in Fresno will suffer and some will die this winter. Is this the final solution?

Speaking of the power elite in Fresno and their ability to tell a narrative about an important local issue, the mayor and her allies have a message for you about the homeless. It is a simple message that says homeless encampments in downtown Fresno were destroyed because they were not fit for human habitation and that the encampments should not exist. Permanent housing, they say, is the answer.

The problem with this simple message is that, as the mayor and the city’s elite well know, “permanent housing” to house the city’s homeless does not exist. Worse, there are no real plans to provide housing. The only plan is to destroy encampments, leaving the homeless with no shelter and pushing them further into desperate conditions.

Progressives have two significant challenges in countering the misinformation coming from Ashley Swearengin and her allies. The first problem is that we do not have the kind of access to the media that the mayor has, and she is able to spin her message with skill and effectiveness. The fact that you are reading this issue of the Community Alliance newspaper is an indication that their power is not absolute—we do have some tools to get our message out.

The second problem progressives have in countering the official narrative about the homeless (and other issues—like the Fulton Mall) is that our view of things is more complex and nuanced than what you hear from City Hall.

If people in Fresno knew what the official City of Fresno policy was doing to the homeless they would be appalled. They might even be moved to do something about it.

The City of Fresno did destroy all of the homeless encampments in downtown Fresno. That much we agree on. The problem is that destroying the homeless encampments did not mean that the people living in them got housing. The homeless people who got displaced are now living under oleander bushes, in Courthouse Park, on the Fulton Mall and just about every place you can imagine. You have probably even seen them in your neighborhood. Destroying their humble shelters did not solve a thing, and the city has not been involved with building new housing for the homeless since the Renaissance at Santa Clara was opened in November 2012. They have no plans to build any new housing for the homeless.

The city’s elite celebrated the opening of the Renaissance at Santa Clara as a solution to homelessness. But take a closer look. The Renaissance at Santa Clara, built for $13,106,534, houses 69 people in 340-square-foot studio apartments. That is a breathtaking $190,000 per unit! Would it surprise you to know that Tom Richards of Penstar, who got the development contract for this project, is the chairperson of Fresno First Steps Home and was the chairperson of the city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness committee? Penstar executives contributed a significant amount of money to Mayor Swearengin’s reelection campaign, and Penstar made about $1,000,000 from its role in developing the Renaissance at Santa Clara. Meanwhile, the city’s homeless problem remains essentially unsolved.

Instead of lining the pockets of her political supporters, the city could have provided thousands of homeless people with housing, but they decided instead to put in granite countertops and other perks that cost taxpayers a fortune, while getting a relatively small number of homeless people off the streets.

The attacks on the homeless since the destruction of the encampments have been relentless. The Fresno Police Department (FPD) has an entire task force targeting them. The task force is busy taking homeless people’s property, issuing them citations (declaring their property is trash) and waking them up at dawn to tell them to “move on.”

If you are homeless and go to the Poverello House (a social service agency that helps the homeless) to eat lunch, you can’t bring your shopping cart (or whatever you are moving your property with) onto their property. It must be left outside the gate, on the sidewalk. The FPD task force sees these shopping carts, declares them as abandoned property and has them hauled away. They have been doing this for several weeks now.

Homeless people in downtown Fresno, like the two in the photo above, are being harassed by the Fresno police. They are being told they can’t sit on public sidewalks, their property is being taken and some say their rights are being violated.
Homeless people in downtown Fresno, like the two in the photo above, are being harassed by the Fresno police. They are being told they can’t sit on public sidewalks, their property is being taken and some say their rights are being violated.

Alternatively, if you stay with your property the FPD task force might come by and tell you not to sit on the sidewalk, they have been known to issue a citation for having “debris on the road” (a homeless person’s property), or they sometimes offer to put your property in storage. The result of this is that homeless people in Fresno have no shelter to sleep in, their property is being confiscated at an alarming rate and they are being issued citations that require them to appear in court to argue that their property is not “debris.”

The narrative from City Hall is that the homeless are drug addicts, mentally ill and criminals. With this, they justified destroying their shelters, they are taking all of their property and there is no place for them to go. As a result, some homeless people will freeze to death this winter (like they did after the evictions in the fall of 2011) and many will suffer.

The city’s policy is not working. The number of homeless people suffering on the streets of Fresno with no hope of housing continues to grow. Spending millions to build 69 small studio apartments at $190,000 per studio apartment is obviously not a solution. The huge consulting fees, tax credits and payments that this project generated raise a legitimate question of whether this policy is intended more to benefit the power elite and the mayor’s political supporters than the homeless. The mainstream media would do well to question why it makes sense to spend millions for 69 tiny study apartments while the number of homeless continues to climb. While they are at it, they might ask why the city appears to have plenty to spend in destroying homeless shelters, but not a dime to spend to provide so much as a trash bin or sanitary facilities, much less a safe place for homeless to live.

There are homeless advocates in this community who are demanding that all people be treated with dignity and respect. They argue for a safe and legal place for the homeless to live, where basic public services (toilets, trash bins and drinking water) are available. Once homeless people’s lives are stabilized in these temporary camps, affordable and decent housing must be found. If our economic and political system was working, it would find a way to match all of the abandoned houses and buildings in Fresno with the thousands of homeless people living on the streets of Fresno. If you believe that another world is possible and want to be a part of the solution, then check out www.helpfresnoshomeless.org/ to get involved with others who are seeking positive solutions to end homelessness in this community.

Connecting the Dots

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that a major redevelopment plan for downtown Fresno is happening at the same time as the scorched earth policy is being carried out against the homeless. When there is money to be made in this town, the rich and powerful have typically not let the weakest and most powerless get in the way of their plans. The builders, developers, business associations and the politicians they support will profit from the degradation of the homeless, the destruction of public art on the Fulton Mall and get the mainstream media to tell us they are doing us a favor. I for one am tired of having them piss on my leg and telling me that it must be raining.

  • Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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