Organized Camps Initial Solution to Unsheltered Homelessness in Fresno

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Scene from Dignity Village, a radical experiment to end homelessness in Portland, Ore. Photos by Kwamba Productions

By Paul Thomas Jackson

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

In Fresno, the plight of unsheltered homelessness affects all but those of us who are callously indifferent to human suffering. Sheltered homelessness is not a desirable status, if only because homeless shelters harbor street criminals, who often are lumped in the same category as homeless people. While it’s true some criminals are also on the streets, they do not represent the average homeless person.

The average homeless person didn’t seek life on the streets and has no ready escape. Generally, homeless people have a criminal record composed entirely of petty offenses—offenses committed largely because of their homelessness. They’re often the victims of crime committed by hardened criminals. And like wolves hidden in the fold, the criminals prey on the people.

Less desirable and harder-than-sheltered homelessness is the kind that Fresno surely has: unsheltered. The proportion of unsheltered to sheltered homeless people in the city of Fresno is highest among all American cities. Unsheltered homelessness plagues Fresno, seeming to overshadow our great agricultural wealth and our nearness to two beautiful national parks.

We’d like to offer three reasons (the first of which is addressed in Part 1 of the series) that organized camps are the right solution for unsheltered people in Fresno: First, organized camps will improve the aesthetics of Fresno and win the support of the local business community. Second, organized camps are the most expeditious way to begin solving unsheltered homelessness. Third, from the radical problem of unsheltered homelessness, organized camps are the appropriately radical solution.

To understand what we’re talking about, we must define our terms. Once we know the definition of the term camp that we’re using, we can begin to consider why it’s the right solution. We’re talking about an organized camp as defined in the California Health and Safety Code. We’re not talking about an encampment, a shanty town, a lean-to or any other makeshift shelter that lacks approval of the state fire marshal and the public health department.

We’re talking about a plot of land having structures and/ or buildings that are officially approved by those two state agencies. The operation of the camp is approved annually by the county health officer. (Fire-resistant tents are allowed by law if in an organized camp, whether the camp is in or outside city limits. Those tents are lawfully placed, even if the camp is in the city of Fresno, and even if the anti-camping ordinance is constitutional. That is a topic for another time.)

Organized camps will improve the aesthetics of Fresno. This might seem an unlikely choice as the first reason why organized camps are the right way for unsheltered people here to begin their recovery. Yet as homeless advocates, we choose it first because homelessness is primarily a social problem.

The physical appearance of Fresno, the city’s aesthetic qualities, is something we can all agree will improve if more unsheltered people here live in clean, safe and humane conditions. Homelessness is solved by cross-sector collaboration.

So, to consider the prominent role that private business plays in our society, we first look at the homelessness crisis from a business standpoint.

As a social problem, homelessness can be solved by a community when all its members come together from across economic sectors, dialogue with one another and put in consistent effort over time to find ways to solve it.

Organized camps are just the place where people can live in clean, safe and humane conditions. In their present living conditions, those desirable qualities are denied them. (Really, all of us deny ourselves those qualities because no man is an island.) Concerns about the unsightliness of the unsheltered individuals will diminish, as the campers/camp will be out of most Fresnans’ sight.

If located inside a city, an organized camp comes under the city’s zoning. Ideally, organized camps will be placed either just outside city limits or in industrial zones away from residential neighborhoods but within access to transportation. In whichever location, an organized camp attracts people from residential and retail zones, leaving those parts of the city in a more aesthetically pleasing condition, therefore desirable from a business standpoint.

Some local retailers are compassionate and willing and able to discreetly share whatever food or other of their stock might be of use to unsheltered people. These interventions are a matter of personal choice, of course.

On the whole, however, businesspeople do not see themselves in the role of provider of a good or service to people who have no definite prospect of paying for it. Not only are unsheltered people viewed with suspicion, they lack that prospect, on which a business depends to keep running. But they also frequent storefronts, alleyways, parking lots, empty lots and public places that create a status quo unfriendly to a business’s survival.

There remain opportunities to collaborate to do right for business and for homeless people, beginning with our moral support of organized camps. So, the city could provide incentives to those business owners who donate those goods or services an organized camp will need to operate.

As a general proposition, businesspeople require tangible evidence before they accept an underlying truth. In this, as any endeavor, we’ll gain the support of businesspeople when there’s visible progress.

Fresno’s business community will soon see progress in fewer numbers of unsheltered people in retail and residential zones, to which they’ll have chosen organized camps as alternatives. Some unsheltered people will remain conspicuous in those zones because they’re not ready to transition to a more stable lifestyle under rules set by consensus of formerly unsheltered campers.

Ultimately, as many of them do decide to enroll and commit themselves to live by those rules, the presence of unsheltered people will decrease throughout the peopled areas of the city. As a result, Fresno’s aesthetic qualities will increase, much to the relief of local retailers, most of whom today are nonplussed by this crisis and simply wish to run their businesses without the nearby presence of so many people whom they believe not only have no definite prospect of being a customer themselves but also drive away the paying customers.

Part 2 of the series will address organized camps as the most expeditious way to begin solving unsheltered homelessness.

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Paul Thomas Jackson is an L.A. native who first came to live in Fresno in 1996, transferring to Fresno State as a public administration major. A decade later, he prepared the claims that paved the way for the homeless lawsuit that settled for $2.35 million. He now administers the Fresno Homeless Advocates’ Facebook group of about 200 members.