A Walk Through Fresno’s Downtown Homeless Encampments
By: Mike Rhodes
I took a journalist from the Bay Area on a walking tour of the homeless encampments. I have to admit that it has been a couple of months since I have done that and significant changes have taken place.
We started at Santa Clara and E streets, where there is a large and developed encampment, which has been there for quite a while. It is significantly larger now and starting to move around the corner toward Golden State Blvd. The thing that struck me about this encampment is that it is pretty clean and there are three portable toilets and a trash bin set up. Everyone I talked to gives credit to Rick and Brandon Morse for these services.
You would think the City of Fresno would be embarrassed to not provide these basic services to the people in this community that need them the most. Not only that, the City of Fresno is relentlessly attacking Rick and Brandon and trying to put them out of business. Rick and Brandon run the only operating medical marijuana dispensary in Fresno (Med-Mar) and with their profits they pay for the trash bins and portable toilets. Their business is a nonprofit 501(c) 3, and this is the charitable work they do. Their trash bins and portable toilets were at all of the homeless encampments we visited today.
Moving on toward the Rescue Mission, I noticed that the Outdoor Drunk Tank had been moved. It is now on the south side of the mission. For those unfamiliar with what this is about, the police take homeless men (and possibly non-homeless men too) to this Outdoor Drunk Tank as a way to avoid booking fees at the jail. They claim it saves the city money. I have a couple of problems with this operation.
1. It is for men only. How can it possibly be legal for the police to enforce public drinking laws one way for men and another way for women? Men get a pass and don’t go to jail. Women are taken to jail and booked. That is just wrong.
2. The staff at the Rescue Mission has no training in how to deal with a person if they are drunk and possibly in a dangerous medical situation because of alcohol poisoning. The tent they are put in can’t be that comfortable. When it is 110 degrees outside it has got to be dangerously uncomfortable. Likewise, when it is freezing, it has got to be uncomfortable. I have not heard about anybody dying there yet, but I can’t say for sure that they haven’t.
3. Larry Arce, the director of the Rescue Mission, told me years ago that he would try to convert people in the drunk tank to his reactionary interpretation of Christianity. So, a man who has been drinking too much in public is taken to the Rescue Mission by the police (it is either that or jail) and then he is subjected to the U.S. version of the Taliban ranting at him? Does anyone else have a problem with this picture?
We then made our way to The Hill (G and California), which is just packed with tents. There must be more than 100 people living on The Hill now. We walked over the overpass and ended up at another encampment at the base of the overpass (on the H Street side). This encampment has grown too and now has tents that go around the corner.
In this encampment, there is a couple that has built a memorial to homeless people who have died recently. They also have a table with free food on it and lots and lots of Bible verses on the walls. Their space is incredibly clean and well cared for.
The last place we went to was the “sex offender” encampment, which is on the other side of downtown Fresno. This is where (penal code) 290s are forced to live because of the restrictions related to their release. There are an incredible number of people living there. It has to be well above 100 at this point. I have been told by people living there that they are dropped off by their parole agents and told to live in this homeless encampment. In my opinion, this can’t be good for the community or the men that are forced to live under
I know City of Fresno Homelessness Czar Greg Barfield is saying that he is providing housing for some of the homeless, but there is no evidence that what he is doing is having any positive effect out there. Sure, you could argue that things might even be worse than they are, but I would counter that they are worse now than they were a year ago when he started. In a recent KMPH news story, they said there are now 10,000 homeless in Fresno-three times as many as a year ago when the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness started. In the report, Barfield put the number of Fresno homeless at 14,000.
I don’t blame Greg for the homelessness problem. It is simply that the problem of homelessness is so big and the City of Fresno is putting so few resources into getting the homeless housing that Greg will never be able to catch up. I believe this is a profound failure of the economic and political system in this city, state and country. There are plenty of vacant houses and buildings available for people that are homeless–the failure is that the people running “the system” have not prioritized coming up with a solution. That ends up leaving people like Greg looking as if they are involved in a scam or an illusion that they are doing something about homelessness when the reality is that they are not making any progress. At best, they are treading water. At worst, they are making matters worse by giving the illusion that things are getting better, when in fact they are not.
Pesticide Protection Zones: Keeping Kids Safe at School
A new report analyzing regulations from California’s 25 top agricultural counties finds that many counties do more to protect crops than children from potentially harmful pesticide drift. The report, Pesticide Protection Zones: Keeping Kids Safe at School, found that 11 counties have no protection zones around schools at all, while another six only limit spraying when school is in session. By contrast, the report notes that nearly 25% of the counties have larger pesticide buffer zones for crops than for schools.
“It seems insane to have stringent rules protecting nuts and peaches while schoolchildren remain at risk from chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems,” said Gustavo Aguirre, director of organizing at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano. “But that’s exactly what’s happening in counties across California, including Kern. It’s past time for a simple, statewide rule that protects all California children from pesticide drift at school.”
“Our children deserve to be protected from these cancer-causing chemicals,” said Assemblymember Sandr‚ Swanson, who has introduced AB 1721, the Health and Safety School Zones Act, to fix the problem. The bill would adopt a simple, statewide rule prohibiting pesticide spraying within a quarter mile of any California school. “The people of California have made it clear that clean air is a right and not a privilege. Many communities have recognized the unintended side-effects of aerial spraying and have passed rules to protect their school sites,” said Swanson. “I will work cooperatively with the Legislature to pass this commonsense approach to protect our children,” said Swanson.
There is currently no statewide regulation in California providing for pesticide protection zones around schools, but only a patchwork of inconsistent and inadequate county rules. In six counties, school protection zones apply only when children are present, even though many pesticides persist in the environment and can pose health threats long after spraying. By contrast, rules prohibiting pesticide spraying to protect the state’s agricultural sector are detailed and stringent.
In California, 90% of pesticides used are prone to “pesticide drift,” the movement of pesticides away from the application site. Almost 20% of the pesticides used in California are known to cause cancer, almost 10% are known to damage the nervous system and more than 10% are known to harm the reproductive system. Children are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of pesticide exposure because of their rapidly growing bodies.
The report, Pesticide Protection Zones: Keeping Kids Safe at School, was co-released by Pesticide Watch Education Fund and the Center for Environmental Health and published by Californians for Pesticide Reform, a statewide coalition of more than 185 groups working to protect public health and the environment from the dangers of pesticide use. It is available at www.PesticideReform.org or www.PesticideWatch.org.
Be The Media: Free Speech Conference Takes Place in Fresno
Profound changes in how we get information on radio, TV and in print are taking place. Responding to this rapidly changing media landscape in Fresno, local media activists held a conference to discuss ways of engaging more people to produce content for alternative/independent media outlets.
Conn Hallinan, the conference keynote speaker and a journalist from the Bay Area, said that “in 1983, in the first edition of Ben Bagdikian’s Media Monopoly there were 50 corporations that controlled 90% of the media. By the last edition in 2004 that figure had been reduced from 50 to 7.” Hallinan said that it is the relentless drive for profit that is destroying corporate media, not the development of new technologies, such as the Internet.
Democracy needs a vibrant and active media to survive. Hallinan said that “we have to mount a campaign in this country to return to the days of our founding fathers and the current situation in the rest of the world. For instance, Sweden and Norway spend about $30 billion a year subsidizing their media. We need to return to a period where it was recognized that democracy requires a media and that advertising and wealthy foundations simply can’t cover the course.” This argument is described in great detail in the cover story of last month’s Community Alliance newspaper and is available online at www.fresnoalliance.com.
Hallinan later led a writing workshop for participants at the conference. Other workshops were held, training participants in investigative journalism techniques, how to conduct an interview and how to post stories on Indymedia.
Each sponsoring organization had about 10 minutes to discuss their group and how participants can become involved with their media organizations. Participating groups included the Community Alliance newspaper, KFCF 88.1 FM, Radio Bilingue 91.5 FM, Indymedia (http://www.indybay.org), El Concillio de Fresno, The Undercurrent newspaper, CineCulture at Fresno State and FresYes!
The Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC) also gave a presentation about the new opportunities that will exist when the public access TV studio is opened. Randy Reed, CMAC chairperson, explained that we are less than a year away from the opening of a Community Media Center and Public, Education, and Government (PEG) channels on the cable network.
See a video of opening presentations at the conference at http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/03/03/18639450.php