Perspectives on the Criminalization of Homelessness in Fresno

By Jonathan Luevanos

On the other side of the railroad tracks, west of downtown Fresno, there is an area that is socially and culturally independent of all of the other communities in Fresno, especially the north side Fresno community. The Chinatown area in Fresno is a site that historically served as the center for the social development of minority communities. Architectural structures such as the Buddhist Temple and the Azteca Theatre still stand as historic sites that today continue to serve people of color in one way or another.

Although the other areas in Fresno (the central, east and west sides) have developed significantly and continue to serve minority communities, Chinatown has actually become a ghost town, and consequently serves the homeless. Homeless people consider Chinatown a hub because it is a safe area that has been abandoned and forgotten by community leaders. It is also preferable because it is near the Poverello House and the Fresno Rescue Mission, which are homeless centers that provide food, health services, clothing and temporary shelter.

The homeless people are the forgotten, the abandoned, the faceless, nameless, lost souls, the ones who inhabit no-man’s land. They are Mexicans, Latin@s, African Americans, Asian Americans, Whites who have been neglected by their city—people who have been deserted in Fresno except by the Fresno Police Department (FPD). The homeless and the Chinatown streets are not completely forgotten because homeless people in the Chinatown area continue to be criminalized by the FPD, an organization that terrorizes with strict impunity not only the homeless but also other groups in Fresno.

Along the China Alley, a small isle that runs parallel to the east of F Street, many homeless people create their own culture. Many folks are surviving in the streets. Pushing back and forth between making money, eating and finding shelter, the homeless are always on the move creating new meanings amid chaotic social experiences. Bicycles are the main method of transportation for the homeless, riding them, fixing them, carrying random bike parts at any given time, transitioning in a space that is undetermined and transient before the authoritative permanence of the FPD.

Recently along the China Alley, I had the opportunity to talk to an African- American homeless man in his late 40s. His name is Mike J. He expressed a strong disdain for the FPD and ultimately feels that they are not doing anything to help the homeless in that area; the FPD are only criminalizing them and making their situations worse.

It is obvious that the FPD is dealing with many problems in Fresno, but the homeless are also dealing with many problems themselves. Mike said that “with their stress, and the stress that we have ourselves, they are making it worse, making us bow down to their crap.”

Mike emphasized that the police are not helping the homeless. He said that “they (the police) are not doing anything but putting more money in their own pocket.”

When asked if he would like to see changes in how the police behave around homeless people in Fresno, Mike said, “I don’t give a damn about the police. They can drop dead. Anybody who wears a uniform and represents our government is bad.” Mike shares the sentiment of many other homeless people around the area. They do not feel that the city is responding adequately by putting more cops out on the streets to harass the homeless.

If one traverses south on F Street through Ventura Street, one will come across a busy area that serves as one of the main spatial shelters for homeless people. Countless tents are lined up on the sidewalks of F Street between Ventura Street and Santa Clara Street near the Poverello House. You might even find a small yard sale along the sidewalk where people are gathering to buy bike parts or other random things.

The sidewalks are not safe though. Every day at 8 a.m., the FPD routinely wakes up and forces homeless people to move elsewhere and take all of their possessions. Sometimes, the FPD takes the people’s possessions and the people have to go claim them, which can be a hassle. After 3 p.m., the people go back to their original sidewalk positions where they will eat, sleep and wake up again to the FPD kicking them out of their own homeless shelters.

I recently asked an African- American woman in her 20s named Twin about her opinion on the police cleanups. Twin said, “I don’t like when they take my stuff. They come into our area and we have till 8 o’clock to get our things and get out of the area or else there are consequences.”

Twin said that “they chase us around like Pac-Man. And we are not doing anything but this—just sitting, just sitting. In my view, they are chasing us away from the homeless shelter.”

The homeless people have nowhere else to go. The streets are their shelters where they must thrive because they have nowhere else to thrive. And they are being criminalized for it. They are being criminalized for performing basic necessary functions such as sleeping and excreting. The Fresno City Council, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, law enforcement and the whole governing body of Fresno do not genuinely care for the lives of homeless people, immigrants or any marginalized group. All they care about is themselves and all of those people who live near Woodward Park.

*****

Contact Jonathan Luevanos at jluevanosfelix@gmail.com.

  • 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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