This Reality Tour of the downtown Fresno homeless encampments was organized by Community Alliance editor Mike Rhodes (on the left). Photo by Howard Watkins

From the Editor

The Community Alliance newspaper is expanding―printing more pages in color and adding a Spanish-language page―and going through some significant design changes.

Over the last three months, we have increased our circulation from 10,000 to 13,000 copies a month. This is largely a result of expanding into southeast Fresno with 20 additional newsstands. We have also started distribution of the newspaper in Visalia and Merced.

Kris McNew has done a great job on the design and layout of the newspaper since July 2005, but he is moving on to new adventures. Tim Savage, who is our Webmaster, and Mauro Carrera, who is a young artist, are taking over the layout/design, starting with this issue. They both bring unique skills to the work, and I’m looking forward to the changes―like four more pages of full color and more arts, music and entertainment information.

To further increase the paper’s circulation and help the homeless at the same time, the Community Alliance is going to print a special edition. We will provide homeless people (free of charge) copies of this special issue of the Community Alliance, which they will then distribute on street corners, similar to the Fresno Bee’s Kids Day project. I believe this will be a Win/Win/Win for the homeless, the Community Alliance and everyone who supports this project. Homeless people will have something of value to exchange for a donation; the person giving the donation will get information about the movement for peace, social and economic justice; and the homeless person will make enough money to help him/her survive for another day.

*****

In my spare time, I have been conducting “Reality Tours” to the homeless encampments in downtown Fresno. Participants on these tours talk to homeless people, see the conditions they are living in and get a better understanding of why the Brookings Institute identified Fresno as having the highest concentration of poverty in the United States.

I remind everyone on the tour that we can end homelessness. There are enough vacant houses, apartments and abandoned buildings to provide decent and affordable housing for everyone. Therefore, homelessness is an economic and political problem, not an issue where we lack the resources to house people.

It is also true that our government (city, state and federal) is spending more of our tax dollars to maintain the status quo of homelessness than they would if they provided housing for every homeless person on the street. The problem is that the political will does not exist to end homelessness. That is why the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, the Fresno First Steps Home project and other initiatives have done nothing to reduce the number of the homeless in Fresno. In fact, there are now more homeless people on the streets of downtown Fresno than ever.

What we see on the Reality Tours are hundreds of people living in tents on the sidewalk; some of them could be your family members, neighbors or, but for the “grace of God,” you and your family. These are all people with distinct reasons for ending up on the streets. One person was released from the hospital in front of the Rescue Mission, another lost his job and broke up with his wife. Other people clearly have drug and alcohol abuse problems. We also visit a memorial for homeless people who have died on the streets, set up and maintained by a homeless man who lives under a bridge.

On the tour, we talk about the complexities of what leads to homelessness and what it would take to end homelessness once and for all. The short answer: Homeless people need housing. The slightly more complicated answer is that they need housing and help to overcome whatever obstacle they have to living a healthy and happier life. That could be job training, mental health assistance or one of a hundred other things.

When pressed for short-, medium- and long-term solutions, I tell tour participants that you have to help homeless people where they are at, right here and now. Food Not Bombs, the Poverello House and other groups are doing that, but there is more that needs to be done. I have set up a trash bin and a portable toilet at one encampment to improve people’s lives. The generous contributions from Reality Tour members are paying for these services. If we get more contributions, we will deliver these services to other encampments. This is something the City of Fresno should be doing, but so far it has refused to help.

The medium-term solution is to establish a safe and legal place where the homeless can live while they are waiting for the long-term solution―descent affordable housing. These safe zones need to be located throughout the city and must contain basic public services―drinking water, toilets and trash bins. These facilities should be safe and protected, just like every other neighborhood, by the police and fire departments. The real goal, however, is to divert the money that is currently being used to maintain the status quo and use it for the housing and services it would take to end homelessness once and for all.

If you are interested in participating in a Reality Tour, e-mail me at editor@fresnoalliance.com and I will give you the dates of future tours. If you would like to help provide basic public services to the homeless, send your contribution to the Community Alliance, P.O. Box 5077, Fresno, CA 93755, and indicate that it is to help the homeless.

  • Mike Rhodes is a writer for the Community 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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