By: Mike Rhodes
It is always sad when you see a bully taking advantage of someone who is weak and powerless. It is even more upsetting when that bully is the City of Fresno, whose employees are being paid with your tax dollars to do the dirty work.
Employees at Roeding Park, under the direction of a Fresno police officer, have taken and destroyed homeless people’s property. City of Fresno employees have also forced the homeless to move from an encampment on H Street, just south of Ventura. Many of those evicted from the H Street encampment moved to a new encampment on Ventura and F Street, where they rebuilt their tents and some wooden buildings. The city posted eviction notices in December that said the homeless had to move eight days before Christmas. When homeless advocates threatened to build a manger, which would put city workers in the uncomfortable position of dragging baby Jesus out of the manger and throwing him into a dumpster, they backed off. They rescheduled the eviction for January 6, which happens to be the Feast of the Epiphany (another religious holiday).
On January 5, members of the local American Civil Liberties Union went to City Hall with a letter, listing a series of due process concerns about the impending eviction. A couple of hours later, the city called off the eviction but claimed it had nothing to do with ACLU concerns.
Two days later, the City of Fresno, using our tax dollars, went to court to get permission to evict the homeless at the Ventura and F Street encampment. How is it that the city can find money to throw at baseball stadiums, attack the homeless in court and give to their fat cat friends, but helping the homeless just never seems to happen?
Homeless advocates have been encouraging the city to establish campgrounds where the homeless can live legally and safely. The proposal is that until the city comes up with a way to end homelessness, they need to provide a place where the homeless can live—campgrounds that provide them with drinking water, toilets and trash pickup. It is an unreasonable policy to chase homeless people from one location to another when there is no place for them to legally stay. The city policy, as it currently stands, essentially criminalizes poverty.
Greg Barfield, the city’s homeless czar, says he does not want to be bothered with setting up a safe and decent place for homeless people to live because he wants to work on providing them with housing, not a campground. He says working on establishing a safe campground for the homeless to live would be a distraction. Barfield did not say why evicting the homeless from H Street and now F Street is not a distraction. He did not say how all of the city’s resources going into the court action, the eviction and putting up fences around the encampments is OK, but somehow establishing a safe and legal place for the homeless to live is an impossible task.
At a meeting held with ACLU representatives on January 8, Barfield blamed me for why the homeless do not have a campground. According to Barfield, the city wanted to set up a campground in 2007, but I single-handedly stopped it. What really happened is that the city bought property in the old industrial section of downtown Fresno. In a meeting (before the property was purchased), Bruce Rudd, the assistant city manager, asked me if I could get the homeless to move into a campground if they were to set something up. I told him that I was not the pied piper of the homeless and that when they had a concrete proposal that I would ask the homeless what they thought.
A short time later, the city announced the purchase of a vacant lot where they wanted to move the homeless. I talked to some homeless people about it and they were not impressed; they said they did not want to live in what appeared to them to be a concentration camp. There was no shade on the vacant lot, which was filled with goat-head thorns. Business owners in the neighborhood of the proposed camp revolted, the city had other logistical problems (expenses like curbs and gutters, soundproof walls, etc.) and they abandoned the idea. The fact that Barfield blamed me for this disaster of bad planning (they did not consult the homeless or business owners in the area first) is outrageous.
Al Williams, a homeless man who lives in the Roeding Park area, went to Ventura and F Street on January 6 to celebrate the partial victory, when it was learned that the city was not going to evict the homeless from that encampment. When he returned to the park later that day, he found that his property and the property of several other homeless people were missing. He asked a groundskeeper what happened and was told that a police officer had told him to take the property to the dump.
This incident is a direct violation of a court order, issued in 2007, that prevents the City of Fresno from taking and immediately destroying homeless people’s property. Williams contacted the groundkeeper’s supervisor, who told him the officer involved was Kurt Smith. Williams was given Smith’s business card as evidence that he was the one who ordered the destruction of the property.
Eddie Aubrey, the new director of the Office of Independent Review (the independent police auditor), is aware of the situation. It will be interesting to see what he does about such a clear violation of the law by a police officer. We will follow up with this in next month’s Community Alliance. The ACLU is also investigating this case.
If you talk to the homeless, they will tell you endless stories about police harassment. They are constantly being stopped, without cause, ticketed for trivial infractions of the law and searched. The homeless are relentlessly profiled, wasting our tax dollars. Then they are vilified for piling trash up at their encampments and urinating in public, both of which could be easily resolved if the city provided these basic public services, which are provided for every other person in this community. It is time to stop blaming the victim and develop a coherent homeless policy that deals with the situation as it really is. We need to establish campgrounds for the homeless that are safe and legal. This is the first step to ending homelessness and ending this city’s outrageous policy of making their lives more difficult.