By Ernesto Saavedra
(Author’s note: Some names have been changed and/or omitted per request of some of the people interviewed given the sensitivity of the topic.)
According to the latest U.S. Census data, from 2008 to 2012, 24.8% lived below the poverty level in Fresno compared to the state average of 15.3%. Another alarming statistic related to income is the percentage of those in Fresno with bachelor’s degrees or higher—19.4% compared to the state average of 30.5%. Numerous studies have shown that education and one’s income are linked. Furthermore, the Fresno Police Department’s (FPD) Homeless Task Force, one of the city’s ideas to end homelessness, seems to be doing a good job at further marginalizing homeless people rather than helping.
In an article by Mike Rhodes, “Local Progressive Activists Targeted by the Fresno Police Department” (Community Alliance, July 2014), Rhodes recalls that FPD Sergeant Dewey “initially saw the role of the FPD Homeless Task Force as eliminating the encampments and then to stop them from reemerging.” Further in the article, Dewey goes on to state that removing people off the streets was easy but actually helping the homeless through social work is hard.
On a warm, sunny morning in late July of this year, I had an opportunity to sit down with Jack to hear his take on all this.
Jack is homeless and is a homeless advocate. An entrepreneur of sorts, he sells single cigarettes for 25 cents to get by. We begin to talk about the lack of safe areas for the homeless. “Historically, we’ve been able to sleep in front of the [Fresno Rescue] Mission. The nice thing about that is that it’s a lit area, it’s an area with cameras; we got the disciples out there, so it’s a safe area.” He goes on to say, “I’ve approached Pastor Rob and the Mission to try and make this a little bit more formal, so that there would be a [safe] area.”
Some days after, according to Jack, Pastor Rob gave him a heads up and said no one will be sleeping in front of the Mission anymore. The reasoning: It’s putting the disciples in danger and keeping people from utilizing their services. As far as where the homeless ought to go, Jack said the Mission’s response was to put them in programs. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
“You can’t expect someone with serious mental health problems to jump up and join a program,” Jack said. It’s not that easy and it’s not too realistic. To qualify for some programs, you need to convert to their religious beliefs or have specific age requirements, documentation of sorts or have some kind of addiction. Whatever the reasons may be, it’s obvious that it can be a task just joining a program, let alone finishing.
Jack feels the city is systematically pushing the homeless to the fringes of society. Little things like trees in front of the Mission for shade have been removed. In addition, the FPD constantly harasses them and keeps them moving. “They’re going to make it so difficult for us…they’re attempting to drive us out of here. There is no help. These programs they talk about don’t exist,” says Jack.
To validate his statements, Jack introduced me to a community mental health specialist with more than 30 years of experience. “Over the years, we’ve just been seeing things deteriorate out here,” he said. “It’s cruel what they’re doing.”
“A year ago, at a meeting we have every month with different agencies…the Mission reported about an organization that proposed this idea called the Bethesda Project. Basically, what they were saying is that they were going to help out a few homeless and get the churches involved to stay at this encampment. Within that time, they were going to be offered services. The original thought was that if they didn’t go they were going to be arrested. They were going to clear out one floor of the jail,” the specialist said.
When asked about services, using the example of Social Security, “a lot of people try to get on Social Security, but the problem is Social Security is looking for one year of documented services and you have to be disabled for a year. Now out here, if you go and apply for it, you won’t get anything.”
When contacting the Fresno Rescue Mission to hear its thoughts about what Jack and the community health specialist were saying, I received the following response from the Mission’s CEO, Larry Arce, “The Fresno Rescue Mission or its employees do not have any comments for the Community Alliance, no matter what the subject is.”
The Fresno Rescue Mission and its CEO Larry Arce have a pattern of participating in and or supporting efforts to further displace the homeless and destroy their encampments and property only to be reminded that they are violating the rights of the homeless. For example, in 2008, in a case which the city of Fresno was accused of violating the rights of the homeless in a series of raids, federal Judge Oliver W. Wagner ruled that Fresno did indeed violate the rights of the homeless. Wagner found that Fresno violated the 4th (unreasonable searches and seizures) and 14th (right to due process) Amendment rights of the homeless whose property was destroyed in a series of 14 city raids from February 2004 and August 2006. Furthermore, it is not illegal for the homeless to sleep on public sidewalks at night so if homeless people like Jack are being told otherwise, that’s illegal.
It seems like the city and organizations like the Fresno Rescue Mission are looking for a quick fix to a systemic problem. There needs to be a holistic approach to this, and we need to remind ourselves about the humanity of it all. Just because we don’t see it or experience it, doesn’t mean it’s not going on.
Ernesto Saavedra is the editor of the Community Alliance. Contact him at email@example.com.