By Eduardo Stanley
On March 21, the Fresno City Council voted 3-2 against a proposal that would criminalize and fine those who donate money or food to people at intersections.
The proposal was presented by Council Member Steve Brandau, a well-known conservative representing District 2, located in the northwest of Fresno and where mainly higher-income families are concentrated.
The main argument of the proposal was to ensure public safety, although it was not clear to whom and how the measure could be implemented. What was clear was that it would affect homeless people who ask for money in some corners of the city and those who sometimes request donations to cover funeral expenses of family or friends.
Fresno already has passed resolutions that affect the homeless, such as one for which they are prohibited from camping in public or private places (approved in August 2017).
But after the municipal elections at the end of 2018, the City Council now seems to have greater political balance. Currently, the city of Fresno is discussing what measures to implement to address the problem of the homeless and present an action plan thanks to $3.1 million received from the state.
This new political climate was revealed on March 20, one day before the City Council voted to criminalize the good Samaritans.
Three Council members, Esmeralda Soria (District 1), Miguel Arias (District 3) and Nelson Esparza (District 7), called the press, supported by religious leaders, to express their rejection of the proposal in strong terms.
“It’s a bad law for Fresno. It’s criminalizing people with a good heart,” said Council Member Soria. “We also see that this proposal is an extension of the one approved in 2017 that forbids the homeless to camp.”
And she adds that a judge ruled on a similar proposal that is unconstitutional, so Fresno would face lawsuits if approving this resolution. Soria dismisses the argument of security by the resolution.
“The police have not provided data on accidents that occurred in Fresno because of a driver giving money to a homeless person,” she says.
The only woman on the City Council expressed no surprise that Brandau was the author of the proposal but was surprised by the support for the measure by two other Council members registered as Democrats, Luis Chavez (District 5) and Paul Caprioglio (District 4).
During the press conference held on March 20, Council Member Arias said that this proposal did not address the problems of the homeless and that he would vote against it.
Council Member Esparza said the same and rejected that the proposal had intentions to ensure the safety of traffic on the streets of the city.
For his part, Jim Grant, a representative of the Diocese of Fresno, called the proposal “vile.”
Until that moment, a day before the decision, the vote seemed to be 3-3, while the intentions of Council Member Garry Bredefeld (District 6) were unknown. In case of a tie, the vote of the mayor, Lee Brand, would be decisive.
On March 21, with great public presence, the Council members argued for and against the proposal. Most of the public was against the ordinance.
The mayor did not attend the City Council meeting, although he made his position known through a statement. “Imposing a fine on those who want to help is not the way,” he says in his letter. And he adds that he would prefer donations to organizations that are proven to help the homeless.
Important was the participation of Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who said that his department lacks the resources to enforce a resolution of that kind. “We cannot dedicate ourselves to fine those who believe they are doing something good.”
Council Member Arias then asked Dyer if he would vote for or against that proposal if he were a Council member. Dyer said firmly that he would vote against it.
Notably, Dyer supported Brandau in the recent special election to fill a Fresno County supervisor vacancy in which Brandau was successful.
Dyer’s comments seem to have influenced Council Member Chavez, who abstained from voting. Despite the absence of Esparza, the motion was defeated 3-2 thanks to Bredefeld’s “no” vote.
With Brandau’s upcoming departure from city government, things are looking up for Fresno to make decisions for the benefit of the population.
“We have to focus on the problems derived from poverty, such as the lack of housing and mental health,” Soria concluded.
Eduardo Stanley is a freelance journalist for several Latino media outlets and a Spanish radio show host at KFCF in Fresno. He is also a photographer. To learn more about his work, visit www.eduardostanley.com.