By: Bill Simon
The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) continues working on our request to the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) for a Pattern and Practice Investigation of the Fresno PoliceDepartment for excessive use of force, including unjustified police shootings, and general disregard of citizens’ civil rights. We have a draft of a letter written and a three-inch binder of backup information ready to go.
Unfortunately, the City of Fresno keeps distracting us with other issues while new information keeps getting thrown on top of our binder for inclusion. We’ll probably have to send two volumes.
Lately, we have also been looking at Fresno DUI checkpoints. Nobody would argue with a sincere effort to keep drunk drivers off the road. But Fresno DUI checkpoints always seem to result in a few DUIs and many citations for licensing problems, and consequent tows with recently increased impound fees. Up to 75% of DUI checkpoint citations seem to be for licensing problems and subsequent impoundment. If we want drunks off the street, perhaps the police should go looking for them. In a bad economy, the suspicion is that DUI checkpoints are merely a fund-raising ploy for the city. Fortunately, in Fresno, they don’t seem to be discriminatory searches for the undocumented.
And then there is the homeless problem. Fresno’s program to use the Housing First model to end homelessness in 10 years seems to have changed into a program to get a few people into housing if they can get Social Security or SSI to pay the rent. Otherwise, the city continues to chase the homeless from an old encampment to a new one every couple of months with a lot of harassment but not much solution to the problem.
The latest confrontation was at the Ventura and F Street encampment. Admittedly, this is a real eyesore for visitors to Fresno who get off Highway 99 on their way to the Radisson or the Convention Center or the Saroyan Theatre and immediately see a homeless encampment that looks worse because the city won’t supply portable toilets or regular trash pickup. As of January 14, both portable toilets and a trash bin have been supplied by private citizens. When I first heard of this prominently visible encampment, I thought it was a real in-your-face cry for help. The threatened help from the City of Fresno was a notice of eviction for trespassing to take place on January 6, postponed from just before Christmas.
The ACLU held its bimonthly committee meetings on January 4. At the Police Issues/Homeless Issues Committee, it was announced that there were all kinds of legal issues with the way the city was conducting the F Street eviction. Many are not trespassing because they are on public right of way, which is encroachment. And law enforcement is supposed to evict people, but the city generally uses garbage workers to evict people from homeless camps. Little did we know at this time that the city couldn’t find any living property owners to pursue trespass claims. And, of course, there was no place for the people to go. So we decided to go to the City Attorney’s office with our concerns.
On January 5 at 2 p.m., a group of ACLU members went to the City Attorney’s office with a draft of a letter that we intended to send after clarifying a few issues. Nobody in that office was available to talk to us, but we were promised a phone call by the end of the business day.
So we decided to go to the boss. Unfortunately, nobody was available to talk to us in the Mayor Ashley Swearingen’s office either.
Next, we tried City Council member Cynthia Sterling’s office because the encampment is in her district. Again, no one was available.
We did exchange friendly hellos with Greg Barfield, the homeless prevention and policy manager for the city, as he rushed to a meeting. When we discovered that the meeting was with the city attorney, City Sanitation and others involved in the eviction, we headed back to the City Attorney’s office and asked if we could present our concerns to those meeting on the subject. No, no one could talk to us, but we would get a call later that day.
Next, we tried City Council member Henry T. Perea’s office. Lo and behold, a staff person was at work and had time to talk with a constituent. She was unfamiliar with the situation but took copious notes. Later, we e-mailed her our draft of the letter to the city attorney. She must have talked to the right people. At 9:20 p.m., Barfield called me to say that, before we got to City Hall at 2 p.m., the city had decided to postpone the eviction. The eviction signs came down at 10 p.m. But we still had no call from the City Attorney’s office.
Barfield suggested a meeting to clear up our “misconceptions.” On January 8, we met with Barfield; Bruce Rudd, the assistant city manager; and Randy Reed, the city’s director of communications. When I asked about our “misconceptions,” the response was that we weren’t all on the same page. So for the next two hours, we discussed our concerns and the need for a safe encampment for the homeless.
At 4 p.m. on January 6, I got the call promised the day before from the City Attorney’s office. I was informed that the city was going to court on January 7 at 3:30 p.m. (only 23.5 hours’ notice) to get the judge to approve the eviction in seven days. The judge said no way because the city couldn’t find any living owners and therefore couldn’t establish that anyone was being harmed. The judge set a new hearing for January 26. On January 15, four of us went to the F Street encampment and found five homeless people who we took to Central California Legal Services to ask for legal representation at the January 26 hearing.
Now, maybe, we can get back to the request to the DOJ.
Bill Simon is past chair of the Fresno Area Chapter ACLU-NC and is currently the volunteer coordinator for the chapter. Contact him at email@example.com.