Last month, I walked into the Fig Garden Regional Library to deliver a stack of Community Alliance newspapers. Just as I was about to put them on the usual table, I was approached by a librarian who said that they could no longer distribute our paper. I guess I gave her a look that said “you have to be kidding,” so she asked me to speak to someone she identified as the head librarian at that branch. This person explained that the Tea Party wanted to leave their papers at the library for free distribution and someone complained about the content. That prompted the downtown library to pull any papers that are, as he said, “political” or “controversial.”
I said, “But the entire library is filled with books, newspapers, and magazines that offer a variety of viewpoints and you are not removing them.”
He said, “Yeah, but this is not my decision.”
OMG, the Community Alliance was banned at the Fresno County Library. I quickly reached out to friends and allies and asked for their advice on how to proceed. Advice ranged from a sensible “you should sit down and talk with them about it,” to the somewhat more radical suggestion of holding a press conference in front of the library’s downtown headquarters complaining about the injustice and violation of our right to free speech. Fortunately, Howard Watkins, one of our supporters, picked up the phone and called County Librarian Laurel Prysiazny. Within 24 hours, the crisis was over. Prysiazny sent a memo to all library branches authorizing them to distribute our newspapers.
A week later I met with Prysiazny and she apologized for what was probably an abundance of caution regarding the upcoming elections. They were concerned that any information available at the library that favors one political candidate or another could be in violation of their operating guidelines. I pointed out that the Community Alliance does not recommend candidates, although we usually print a grid that lets our readers know how both progressive and conservative organizations suggest you vote. On the other hand, the Fresno Bee does make voting recommendations, but nobody has ever suggested banning it from the library.
Mistakes happen and it is to the library’s credit that they quickly realized their error and corrected it right away. Prysiazny not only made it right but also she invited me to sit on a panel to help determine policy for the future so this sort of thing does not happen again.
The following week, I received a call that all of our outdoor newsstands at Fresno City College (FCC) had been removed. I’m thinking to myself, “What is it about free speech that people in this community do not understand?” I remember years ago when we asked the administration at FCC if we could put the newsstands up, they said no. When pressed for a policy of why they could have other newspapers, but not ours on campus, they said that it was because we were a free paper and that it could create a littering problem. We asked if they thought a possible littering problem trumped our First Amendment right to free speech; they gulped hard and said we could put four newsstands on the campus.
Everything was fine until they removed all of our newsstands; the Fresno Bee newsstands are still up. FCC was one of our better locations; we distribute about 500 papers a month there. As this edition of the paper goes to press, we are still trying to track down exactly what happened. Our goal is to get the newsstands back up so that FCC students have the opportunity to pick up and read this alternative/independent newspaper on campus.
It is one thing to have the Alliance removed from someplace like the Revue in the Tower District. The owner doesn’t like our politics, and I understand that. That is why there are public spaces, like the sidewalk in front of the Revue, where we put a newsstand.
We also have a newsstand on the Mariposa Mall in front of the Fresno Police Department (FPD) headquarters. I have often wondered if it is because of our articles about police accountability that this newsstand is constantly having its window kicked in and papers stolen; one time, it was burned to the ground. The police claim that they did not see a thing as our newsstand had gasoline poured on it, was set on fire and had flames that went 30 feet into the sky. The resulting inferno reduced our newsstand to a plastic puddle in front of the lobby of the FPD.I was told that the nearby video surveillance camera didn’t see anything either. But I digress.
It is clear that we have to be vigilant to protect our right to free speech and not let repressive forces take away our public space. The Community Alliance has the right to be in the library, at community colleges and in newsstands on sidewalks around town.
This segues nicely into the issue of homeless people in this town not having anyplace to live that is safe and legal. You probably missed the latest eviction of homeless people at an encampment under the Highway 41overpass, south of Ventura Street on H Street in downtown Fresno. This encampment was about as isolated as you can get (in an urban setting); it was on public land owned by Caltrans and was where this group of people ended up after being chased away from another vacant lot about a month earlier.
There is literally no space (public or privately owned) where the thousands of homeless people can live. This newspaper is allowed on public space (most of the time) and dogs and cats are allowed on public land (or housed at public expense if they have been abandoned), but homeless people have nowhere to go. There are far fewer shelter beds in Fresno than homeless people who need a place to sleep.
City of Fresno elected officials believe they are taking the moral high ground when they point to their Housing First model and tell us that they want to focus on housing, not providing homeless people with a safe and legal place to live. Illustrating their commitment to this position, in August the city bulldozed a one-half mile row of oleanders to get rid of a few homeless people living on Weber Avenue (across from Roeding Park).In September, the city removed all of the trash containers from four of the largest homeless encampments, creating a stinking, rat-infested health hazard that threatens the entire community.
The Renaissance housing development built with Housing and Urban Development funds through the Fresno Housing Authority is the primary focus of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s Housing First model. The city proudly proclaims that the biggest Renaissance project (at Santa Clara) will house 69 homeless people. It cost taxpayers $11 million.
Do the math: Each unit costs $159,420, which is an outrageous amount of money for a one-bedroom apartment. In any event, if you take Swearengin at her word, that this is how we are going to end homelessness in Fresno, then you must multiply $159,420 by the number of homeless people in the city to find out how much it is going to cost to solve this problem. Although the number of homeless people in Fresno is hard to determine, a conservative figure is 15,000.Therefore, to do what the mayor is suggesting would cost a staggering $2,391,300,000!The entire budget for the City of Fresno in 2012–2013 is only $232.7 million.
The city’s policy on homelessness is based on smoke and mirrors, with the goal of creating the illusion the city is compassionate and cares about solving this problem through the Housing First model. The reality is that the city is carrying out a scorched-earth policy by destroying homeless encampments, chasing the homeless from one vacant lot to another, threatening them with arrest and telling them to get out of town. Then, the city has the audacity to criticize homeless activists who advocate for a safe and legal place for the homeless to live.
What I think we should do to deal with the immediate crisis of thousands of people living in this community without housing is to provide the existing encampments with basic public services—drinking water, toilets and trash pickup. That can be done with little or no cost and could be done within a week. That would vastly improve people’s lives. Next, establish longer-term solutions such as safe and legal campsites, converting unused buildings for use by homeless people, and opening up bank-owned foreclosed homes.
Don’t be fooled by City Hall when it states it is working to end homelessness. Follow the money. Its Housing First model will not work because the resources to implement it are simply not available. We will never have the resources to build all of the Renaissance apartments it would take to house the homeless. That is a dead-end path; instead of the smoke and mirrors, City Hall needs to change its direction and include projects that start meeting the urgent and immediate needs of this community’s homeless.
While I agree that the solution to ending homelessness is by getting the homeless into housing, everyone knows adequate and affordable housing will not be provided to everyone in a day, a month or even a year. There has to be short-, medium- and long-term solutions. The city must acknowledge the gap in its Housing First model and begin to help those who are desperate for basic public services.
One underlying theme for both the free speech and homeless issue is the importance for public space; this newspaper needs a place to put up newsstands and places like the library where people have the opportunity to get news that is not controlled by the corporate media. Homeless people simply need a place to live; they have a right to exist and we have the right to a free press.
Although it seems as if the government would be on our side to protect these basic values, that is not the case. It is up to us to demand our free speech rights and up to the homeless and their allies to stand up for their human rights. Another world is possible.