By Mike Rhodes
With homelessness increasing in Fresno for the past several years, it is obvious that whatever we are doing, it is not ending homelessness. There are many organizations (West Care, the Poverello House and many more) that are doing what they can to help the homeless, but this is not enough.
What we have is a self-perpetuating system of social service organizations, a couple of shelters that get some homeless people at least temporarily off the streets and individuals who mean well (serving food or providing survival gear such as sleeping bags) that are not making a dent in ending homelessness.
Worse, you have tax money that pays to make homeless people’s lives more difficult. For example, telling them to move their tent when there is no safe and legal place to go and not enough shelter beds.
We need to think outside the box if we are going to end homelessness in Fresno. We need a new framework in which to address this issue.
We should start with the premise that homeless people are our brothers and sisters. We should treat homeless people the same way we would like to be treated if we became homeless. Every person on the streets of Fresno can live a better, happier and more meaningful life. It should be our goal to make that happen.
It begins with redirecting funding that is being given to the Fresno Police Department’s Homeless Task Force and using that money to actually help the homeless. Stop spending tax dollars on taking and immediately destroying homeless people’s property. In short, stop doing the things that harm the homeless, make their lives more miserable and keep them on the streets.
The next thing we are going to do is identify the major concentration centers of the homeless that are in the city. That information should be readily available. Then, you can set up basic public services where they are. That includes drinking water, trash bins and portable toilets.
This will immediately improve homeless people’s lives, keep the city cleaner and give everyone on the street a measure of dignity. After the City of Fresno has stabilized the situation, it can move to identify property in the community (everywhere in the city—not just in the 93706 zip code) that can be used as a safe and legal place where the homeless can live.
There are a few examples of facilities in Fresno that are safe and legal and provide the homeless with basic public services. The Dakota EcoGarden and the Dream Camp that Dez Martinez has created (at Monterrey and Broadway streets) are two examples of how this can be done. If we could replicate these all over the community, that would make a huge difference.
These properties will be improved and maintained so they are habitable. If it is a vacant lot, it will include basic public services, tents will be allowed and there will be professional oversight of the project. If it is an existing building, the infrastructure will be improved so people can live there.
The temporary facilities will be shut down as the improved facilities ramp up.
Yes, there will be a backlash from people who don’t want to have such a facility in their neighborhood. Elected representatives will have to weather that storm. It could be presented to the NIMBY (not in my back yard) groups that this is a temporary situation and these people will quickly be moved into housing and provided with social services. But, if you want to end homelessness (which most people say they do), this is something that must be done.
The purpose of providing enough temporary housing (through setting up these facilities) is to provide social workers, mental health professionals and housing specialists a place where each homeless person can be found and helped.
Some people believe that there are homeless people who will resist going somewhere that has any rules. If each person is treated with dignity and respect, there is an approach that will bring them in. It will be different with each person, but with professionally trained workers, more than 90% of people can be helped.
For the few people who prefer to stay on the streets, that is where the police can do their job. If persons are engaging in illegal activities, they should be held accountable. If they have drug or alcohol addiction problems, they need to be helped. If they have mental health issues, they need to be helped by a mental health professional. Everyone should be helped so they can live the most meaningful life they are capable of living.
Once everyone is in a safe and legal facility, they are evaluated by social service workers, start a program that is giving them the help they need and as quickly as possible and are provided with decent housing. Whatever help they are getting will be continued when they are housed.
Not everyone will become a model citizen, but we can help every person be the best person they can be. Reducing homelessness for the 90% that just need a hand up will make a huge difference.
There will probably be a small number of people who resist all attempts at helping them and others that are newly homeless. Everyone will be given a pathway out of homelessness. This could dramatically reduce the number of homeless people in Fresno. It will be good for them and good for the city and will make Fresno a place you can be proud to live in.
- The City of Fresno has the political will to make these changes.
- The money can be found to make the transition from trying to maintain the current level of homelessness to ending homelessness.
- When homelessness is ended (or nearly ended), it will cost less than the current system.
- All homeless people will be provided housing and social services, even if they still have addiction, mental health or other issues.
- We will acquire the resources (land, buildings and money) to make this transition.
- Adequate housing can be found or created.
- There are enough resources to pay social workers and mental health professionals for the work needed.
Ultimately, there will have to be better coordination and cooperation between the city and county of Fresno, and the state and federal governments. If we want to end the underlying causes of homelessness, that will be even more of a challenge. What would that look like?
- Universal healthcare
- Adequate affordable housing
- A living wage for all workers
- Little things like that
For now, let’s focus on ending homelessness in Fresno. Tomorrow, we will take on the bigger issues.
Mike Rhodes is a writer for the Community Alliance newspaper and has written a book about homelessness in Fresno, Dispatches from the War Zone. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerry Bill responds with a compelling article about why the City of Fresno is probably incapable of doing so: