Organized Camps Initial Solution to Unsheltered Homelessness

By Paul Thomas Jackson

Editor’s note: “Organized Camps” is the third article in a three-part series on homelessness in Fresno.

The third reason voluntary enrollment in an organized camp is the right way for anyone living without shelter in Fresno to begin recovering from homelessness is that this way will give the stability needed to recover: From the radical problem of unsheltered homelessness, which usually involves drug addiction, organized camps are the appropriately radical solution, allowing recovery.

As a radical alternative to existing models and policies, organized camps recognize people as people: Given the choice, people will choose to move off the streets in favor of a safer and more stable life.

Since 2012, Housing First (HF) has been the official policy of the Veterans Administration. And since 2016, the State of California has made HF its policy, too. However popular nowadays, as the housing crisis continues, HF is not a best practice, and its effectiveness has been questioned relative to some clients with a long history of substance abuse.

Nor, because transitional structures (tents) aren’t housing, can organized tent camps be called permanent supportive housing (PSH) or rapid rehousing (RRH), of course. But organized camps can be places where formerly unsheltered people can live in their own tents; can express some of their creativity in their lifestyle; can communicate more freely and naturally than in a rescue-oriented setting; and so can develop their own rules for delegation of tasks carrying out the camp’s plans and procedures, ensuring its viability at least until it comes up for annual approval by the county health officer.

Most chronically homeless people in Fresno lack shelter. And most of them use substances to cope with the stress of their lives—much of which was intentionally inflicted at the behest of city officials. Also, homeless addicts endure the peer pressure of many other unsheltered people, who usually form tight-knit groups having a tough shared experience. In life’s other settings, group conformity is often praised. In this unfortunate setting, people feel the pressure to conform no less keenly, but with dire consequences.

It’s tempting to cite substance use as the major cause of homelessness. Yet, substance abuse should not be condoned when used by people with houses any more than without. The facts regarding homelessness belie the wildly popular cause-and-effect, drugs-and-homelessness assumption. The true dimensions of this complex social problem elude a simplistic approach. They defy any pat answer. The problem is not always caused by illicit drug use. But, oftentimes, it’s the other way around: Homelessness results in drug abuse.

Whatever an unsheltered individual’s unique experience— through traumas, survival, struggles, drugs and counseling—organized camps will be a point of contact for substance abuse counselors serving formerly-unsheltered addicts.

They and other formerly unsheltered people will be freed from the awful peer pressure of the streets, let alone the dangers that ever lurk there. They’ll receive regular wellness checks by the health coordinator on site, or medical referral as appropriate. They’ll enter a supportive environment with others in recovery. They’ll enjoy a sense of community without harming their health, rediscovering that sense in its purity.

Organized camps also recognize the balance between individual and group responsibility, to which campers are instinctually drawn by the social quality of human nature and the natural desire to build a drug-free community, given the opportunity. (That desire was demonstrated by the former silo encampment, though unsustainable and demolished by the City of Fresno in September 2013.) Following the linear model of treatment to some extent, enrolling in these modest outfits will be the first step out of homelessness, but not arrival at home yet.

Counselors will know clients there will be clean before they transition from a structure (tent) to a building. This step might go against HF, which at any rate has never been called a best practice. And this radical first step will silence public outcry at the high cost of taxpayer-funded buildings, particularly new ones, that are used to treat homeless people with active addictions. In the current political environment, the less expensive alternative of organized camps is radically appropriate, serving unsheltered people close to but not on the streets where they now live and struggle.

It’s no matter if our envisioned camps don’t last long: If they’re approved for only one year, they still offer greater stability and life-affirming support than does either the street or the cheapest options for housing and shelter options that presently exist in Fresno, which are still too expensive to accommodate the thousands of unsheltered people—even if subsidized as fully as possible in the current political climate.

In conclusion, we seek equality under the law in our advocacy here. The principle of equality under the law goes back to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution—the law of the land we all share, whatever our housing status. But as a broad-based community group, the Fresno Homeless Advocates doesn’t seek substantive equality throughout society. We embrace members who come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. We recognize under current conditions in society that the legal system helped create, unsheltered people are de facto unequal.

The often-tragic results of this inequality might seem acceptable to some people who are “rugged individualists” and feel no responsibility for the plight of unsheltered people. In their own view, those people brought it on themselves, a stance that doesn’t jibe with the facts any more than the opposite extreme. But, at a minimum, we can all agree that if we fail to take even the least costly measure to help them off the city’s streets, we would be sacrificing the city’s beauty for a neo-Darwinian notion. Organized camps are that measure.

We seek justice, which requires fairness. And to be fair toward all addicts, we believe those without homes should have viable options available for their recovery as do those without. If someone has neither shelter nor any treatment center to check into, an organized camp will be the only viable place for recovery.

Recovery from addiction involves time, professional attention and a residential facility. The high costs of these things exceed the resources of the dozen or so agencies attempting to bring homelessness to a functional end in Fresno. It’s been estimated if the agencies keep on their present course, they’ll reach that goal by the year 2050. This estimate is no criticism of the services rendered by the fine people employed by or volunteering with those agencies. It’s just an observation of the housing crisis in California and other western states.

And it’s coupled with our observation of the current effects of Fresno’s history of strikebreaking beginning in 1933. Unsheltered people without substance use issues also need and deserve to recover in a stable, supportive place—an organized camp so designed.

Today, the central San Joaquin Valley is still rich in land, food and caring people who have no real place to show they care for “the least” among us. Many thousands of unsheltered people on our streets have no stable place to live. And the instability of their lives deepens their trauma, stress and addictive behavior.

People lacking shelter will choose to enroll in a community populated by others who’ve experienced homelessness. They’ll be drawn by the inspiration of campers’ ongoing recovery. So they’ll decide to give their criminal and medical histories, which will be kept by the trusted camp director.

A stable living situation allows a person to recover from past traumas, which are almost always at the root of addiction. In organized camps, a recovering addict finds him or herself in the company and moral support of others in recovery. In a stable, safe, supportive community, the camper is poised to assume a recognized, respected station in his or her community.

Our vision of organized camps doesn’t include shelters or structures in a residential or retail zone. This vision is quite apart from whatever some compassionate homeowners might choose to do in their own backyards.

This city will witness fewer cases of human tragedy in its midst, and some of the justifiable outcry at these injustices will diminish. Unsheltered people with substance-use issues will receive their needed care in a supportive environment.

So Fresno will see a reduction in property crimes otherwise committed by individuals desperate to pay for their next fix. Homeless people will cross paths with street criminals less often, and the police will have an easier job of identifying the real criminals. Homeless people themselves will be victimized less by crime.

Public awareness of homelessness will decrease to the extent public support of organized camps increases. Organized camps will be out of sight, but not out of mind. Through the media, the public will still keep abreast of camps, whether located on land set aside in industrial zones or just outside city limits to which public transportation is to be furnished.

There will be fewer eyesores near retail store fronts, an annoying experience known to many retailers here, who fret over declining foot traffic, thwarting the hard-won promise of paying customers. Local hospitals will see a reduction in some of their costliest emergency room visits, incurred through our neglect of the most basic needs of unsheltered people.

The police will have to devote less time to attempting to intervene in the frequent clashes between modern society and unsheltered status, which will be solved expeditiously by organized camps. So the police could devote their time less to aesthetics and more to public safety. The struggle to bring all homelessness to a functional end will continue and be covered by the more socially responsible media.

Of central importance, unsheltered people in the city will live in conditions more safe, stable and humane than they do now. And although many Fresnans have consciences deeply troubled by constant reminders we live in Homeless Hotspot No. 3, where the basic needs of thousands of our fellow residents are sorely neglected, we will again focus our attention more on the beautiful things this city has to offer. And to be sure, at least one of those things will be our opportunity, made possible by organized camps, to appreciate the personal stories told by formerly unsheltered people of their successful recovery.

Like the social problem of unsheltered homelessness, organized camps are radical. For all the reasons discussed in this series, they’re the right way for unsheltered people in Fresno to begin their recovery because the camps will most expeditiously allow the opportunity for the people and their counselors to bring about positive and lasting results for the people and the entire community.

Author’s note: Thanks go to Kathryn Saari for proofreading this series.

*****

Paul Thomas Jackson prepared the claims that paved the way for the homeless lawsuit that in 2008 settled for $2.35 million. Paul is now the secretary of the Fresno Homeless Advocates (FHA). He’s also its acting social media director, playing a key role in its Facebook group of more than 500 members. The FHA regularly meets at 6 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month. Notice is posted on the wall of the Facebook group.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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