By: Nigel Medhurst
There is much talk of helping the less fortunate during the holiday season, but that didn’t stop the City of Fresno from issuing an eviction order for a homeless encampment on December 16. This eviction date was changed to January 6 and was eventually postponed again, but the city accomplished what it wanted. Half of the 90 residents at F and Ventura streets moved.
The postponement was not granted out of mercy but rather because of legal technicalities restricting the city’s ability to evict the homeless. A letter sent from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to the City Attorney’s office outlined several violations of codes in the city’s effort to evict the homeless from the encampment.
One such violation involved Section 4-301 of the Municipal Code, which requires that “all employees of the city shall turn over to the Police Department any lost or unclaimed property which is turned over to them or comes into their possession while on duty or as a result of their employment.” This meant that the Police Department would have to catalog and store any and all items — blankets, tarps, even a bicycle wheel left behind — confiscated at F and Ventura. Could it be that the understaffed Police Department thought better of using its time to inventory the refuse of the homeless?
The city would, however, view the endeavor to be at least temporarily successful. After all, it cleared out most of the residents at F and Ventura. Many of the homeless moved a block down to E Street, where the owner of that property evicted them. Thus, many of the homeless returned to F and Ventura. The city’s formula for addressing homelessness seems to be to harass the homeless by ticketing them or forcibly evacuate them without providing an alternative place for them to live.
Greg Barfield, Fresno’s homeless prevention and policy manager, said that the action was “not an eviction. You can’t be evicted from something you don’t own. They are trespassing. This is a code enforcement action for health and safety reasons.” Health codes were being violated at the site. There was a pile of garbage, and an alleyway was being used as a toilet. However, portable toilets and dumpsters could have been provided by the city as has been done in the past.
For Linda, 53, the camp was her home. She shared a tent with her husband and daughter, but many others in the camp also called her “Mom.” She wanted to keep the camp clean and wished that the city would provide dumpsters and portable toilets. “Porto-potties would rid the homeless of flies. They go and lay their maggots in people’s stuff,” she said. Instead, even though she has a fractured vertebrate and dehydrated discs, she was forced to break down her home and move to another camp. “This whole thing is so depressing especially through the Christmas holidays,” she said. “It’s like the city doesn’t care about us.”
The city refused to supply these basic needs and explained that it was focusing on getting the homeless off the street and into housing. However, the city further explained that such housing has been severely delayed due to the economic downturn and budgetary restraints. Barfield suggested to Linda that she sign up for Rapid Rehousing. She did, but there are problems with the bureaucratic process. “No one can give us an exact date when we will move in. We find a place and what are we supposed to tell the landlord? We don’t know when we’ll get the money,” Linda said. She waits like so many of the homeless do.
Barfield notes that the programs designed to move the homeless into housing are limited. “Between the city and county, we have $1.5 million per year for the next three years. This may seem like a lot, but it would only cover 100 homeless at $15,000 a year to house them.” There were close to 100 homeless at the F and Ventura camp and an estimated 15,000 homeless in Fresno. “It is not possible for the city alone to solve the homeless problem. Churches and organizations must come together.”
Barfield explained that the city is working to utilize the resources of organizations and churches more efficiently. “Many folks in the faith community want to do something, but they don’t know how to get engaged,” he said. Some churches are doing something. For example, the Peoples Church provides socks and gloves and the Unitarian Universalist Church serves food and donates money.
Barfield is working on pooling church and organization resources so that they can do more to help the homeless. He plans to suggest to churches that they get together and support families. “This is a different way of thinking about helping the homeless,” he said. “It will take time.”
Time is a hard thing to ask for from any homeless person. Each day is a struggle. Airlene Vang, a 41-year-old Hmong woman, works every day to find a job. “I don’t want to be like this,” she says. “I don’t want to stay like this.” She was laid off after 12 years working in medical assembly. Although she has signed up with every employment agency, she has been unable to find work. She needs basic training with computers to get a job doing data entry. Churches and organizations could provide the training that an unemployed person like Vang needs.
Within the already marginalized homeless community, communication is also an issue in assistance efforts. Hispanic non-English speakers are not being offered the same opportunities as the other homeless. At F and Ventura streets, they occupied the tents on the outskirts of the camp. When city representatives came to talk to the homeless, they gathered at the center of the camp and did not approach the Hispanic homeless on the periphery. Moreover, all notices posted and all city representatives communicated in English. Jose Gomez, 54, a migrant farmworker, said, “The city came down and they said nothing to us.”
Certainly, in the New Year, the city needs to address its financial restraints and find a way to provide basic services for the homeless such as portable toilets and dumpsters.