By: Nigel Medhurst
Homeless advocates believe that housing is a human right. On December 10, International Human Rights Day, a press conference was held at the Pam Kincaid Neighborhood Center in Fresno where speakers declared that the political and economic system had failed. Mike Rhodes, a homeless advocate and the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper said, “There is something fundamentally wrong when you have thousands of abandoned, foreclosed and bank-owned houses in this city and at the same time you have thousands of homeless people on the streets.”
Al Williams, another speaker at the event, said that some of the homeless are starting to move into those abandoned houses. “It is a matter of survival,” Williams said. “It is not reasonable to expect people to freeze to death in the cold, when there are homes available all over the place.”
The idea of talking about the homeless moving into abandoned homes during the Human Rights Day event was contentious, even within the progressive community. Peace Fresno would not initially support the event because their members were concerned with endorsing an activity that is illegal. Eventually, Peace Fresno agreed to support the event because there is nothing illegal with demanding that the city do more to house the homeless.
Speakers at the press conference proposed that banks, bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, invite homeless families to live in foreclosed homes as caretakers. “If the political and economic system made that one change—to allow homeless families to be caretakers of the bank-owned, foreclosed and abandoned houses in this community, homelessness would end almost immediately,” Rhodes said.
The homeless are already moving into abandoned houses.
These aren’t the homeless who live in tents at encampments. The small group gathered around the picnic table look like they are out enjoying the fresh air in the park. They play cards as their hamburgers sizzle on the BBQ and their cell phones charge on electrical outlets. There is no backdrop of tents or sleeping bags.
Everyone is expected to contribute and carry their own weight in this community that is part pirate, part outdoorsmen. The survival of the group depends on the individuals supporting each other. They drink their grog and shrug off the lack of common niceties we all take for granted. The wooden benches are practical, but there is little comfort in their rustic lifestyle. Sometimes, even with all their toughness they still occasionally need to get out of the elements and go inside. That is when they move into abandoned homes.
Homeless like these only go in when the weather gets extremely intolerable, like during freeze warnings or when it rains. Their first choice isn’t a shelter but an abandoned building. They feel they can still maintain their freedom and individuality in these homes. The shelters are far away, and there is a strict process for getting one of the few beds available. To spend the night, the homeless sometimes have to sit through a two-hour religious sermon. I will refer to the three people I interviewed as Larry, Carlos and Lance to protect their anonymity.
Carlos is Hispanic, 51, and looks like an ex-biker or roadie in a band. The weather and effects of being on the street have taken their toll on him. “I can’t jump into the dumpsters like I used to,” he said. “I have to take a milk crate and climb up on it in order to look in for the cans.” He makes all of his money from collecting recyclables. He usually walks five or more miles a day collecting cans. The money he makes he uses to buy beer and food for his friends.
When the weather gets bad, he finds an abandoned house and sleeps. “We go into houses that are already open. We take advantage of houses that are emptied and unlocked,” he said. If the police do come, the homeless hear, “‘Fresno PD!’ and they come in. If you have priors, then they’ll take you but mostly they tell you to move on. We wait 15 minutes and then go back in.” If the police ever give a ticket, it is usually only for trespassing. Carlos explained that it is always in the best interest of the homeless to look after the place. “We’re not kids. We’re not jerks. We don’t spray paint them or break anything. We just sleep in them,” he said. When they find a place, they only go there to sleep.
Larry, a Vietnam veteran and African American, 53, has been homeless the longest. He has pride in his lifestyle and considers himself a hobo, not a bum. “There’s hobos and bums. In the 50s, hobos were self-contained people. They were the independent homeless. A bum goes to the Rescue Mission, gets meals and sits in front of the Rescue Mission.”
These homeless distinguish themselves by their ability to look after themselves. “We’re not the ones who give up and live off the Poverello House. They eat and they go out and they wait for lunch,” he said. After Larry eats, he has to go make money to buy the food he and the others need for their next meal.
Lance, a Native American, has only been homeless for a short time. He was working in construction, but since the economic downturn he has been unable to pay his rent. He collects cans to make money to eat. He was glad to join up with the others. They look out for each other. This sort of homelessness he can accept. He didn’t want to move downtown to the camp on Ventura Street. “What’s the difference between prisons and the homeless down on F Street? They’re told when to eat, when to sleep. Homelessness is surviving on your little hustle like collecting cans or holding up signs.”
This group of homeless seem to display more pride and spirit than the homeless near the shelters. Still, Lance admits it can be hard. He said some nights he sleeps with one eye open and only gets three or four hours of sleep. He was shocked when he woke up with frost covering his sleeping bag. There are occasional squabbles like one with a park worker who got upset at Lance for taking the recycling cans he wanted. The park worker called the police on them. Lance said the police were nice and told them to leave which they did. Fifteen minutes later, they went back into the park.
When the weather gets unbearable, they will move into an abandoned house. “We’re out everyday so we go past these houses,” Larry said. “We see nobody’s there or there’s a ‘For Sale’ sign or its boarded up. We know where these houses are and we remember.” The action of moving into a house happens in an almost natural way. The homeless get kicked out of the park or driven out by the weather, and they wind up at the abandoned house. Sometimes the home is already occupied by other homeless, but the homeless will usually share with each other. “There is a code of honor among the homeless. We look out for each other and offer each other respect,” Larry said. And they make it through another night.
However, these rustic outdoorsmen aren’t the only homeless squatting or moving into previously abandoned or foreclosed homes. Meg, 26, from Fresno squats or couch-surfs. She lost her job at Starbucks and then lost her apartment. She moved around staying with friends and relatives, but that has run its course. She is now looking to find a full-time place to squat with her boyfriend. She explained that sometimes the apartments she finds are “furnished with couches, beds and running water and electricity.” She is probably sleeping in an abandoned home tonight.
Nigel Medhurst is a freelance writer and photographer in the Fresno area. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org