A historic lawsuit, led by longtime homeless advocate Dez Martinez, founder of We Are Not Invisible, has been filed against the City of Fresno. Because of Martinez’s efforts, unhoused residents of the city will be represented in court. A judge will have to approve the class, which could take several months.
On Feb. 21, 2020, Fresno Police Department (FPD) officers assaulted and injured Lewis Brown at a homeless encampment near Highway 180 and Hughes Avenue in West Fresno. The encampment was not located on City property, and Brown had been living there cooperatively with other residents for more than a year.
Ironically, Brown is back living at this same encampment two years later. After Martinez assisted him in finding legal counsel, Brown is now the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit seeking justice for the unhoused of Fresno.
Brown describes the day he was assaulted as follows:
“I had just woken up, starting to do my daily chores, fed my dog, and I saw the [FPD] Homeless Task Force walking up. The officer said you have to evacuate this place. I said, ‘why is that?’
“He said it’s because you’re on City property. I said it’s not City property, it’s private property. The officer said ‘if you don’t move you are going to jail. You have 10 minutes to move.’ I told him, ‘well okay, whatever, I’ll tell these guys’” (referring to other residents).
“I go walking back to my tent with my dog and had my friend tie my dog up. The police officer, [Andrew] Diaz, said that I told the people [the other residents] that they didn’t have to move. I said I didn’t say that, and then I started packing my stuff.
“The officer looks at me and says, ‘oh yeah,’ grabs my arm, and says ‘stop resisting,’ right off the top. He threw me to the ground with four other cops, and from then on, they were beating me up.
“As I was packing my stuff, I did nothing against their orders. They never told me I was under arrest. They put their knees on my back, rubbed my face into the ground, busted my eye open. And I just had eye surgery three weeks before, a cornea transplant; they messed it up.
“They picked me up off the ground and took me to the police vehicle and kicked my legs out from under me, then said, ‘have a seat.’ The whole time I was trying to cooperate, Officer [Gary] Holden kicked my legs out when handcuffed, and I have bad knees. They beat me up for about three minutes with my arms up way over my head.
“In court, they said they never saw someone treated like that, and I’m lucky I’m still walking. They searched me, found some marijuana. I smoke weed. I use it for pain.
“I’m in a lot of pain. I’m 62 years old, my knees are bad and the police abuse made my pain worse. They searched me while I was laying there. They yanked me up, called the paramedics and arrested me while I was in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital.
“This never should have happened. They dropped the charges, right away, of resisting arrest and possession and trespassing. A week later, they refiled charges after my attorney filed charges against the City. It was retaliation for filing charges against the City.
“It took about two years to go through court, and I was found not guilty on all charges. Now I am part of a class-action lawsuit against the City.”
The lawsuit is being filed by Attorney Kevin Little on behalf of Brown and all others similarly situated. The City estimates that there are more than 4,000 unhoused individuals, however, advocates estimate the number to be twice that. This lawsuit represents all of them.
In addition to the City, the lawsuit is filed against Police Chief Paco Balderrama, former police chief Andy Hall, Mayor Jerry Dyer and five police officers involved in the incident. It is also filed against unknown law enforcement officers who might have engaged in unlawful conduct throughout the city.
The complaint seeks damages, declaratory and injunctive relief, and demands a jury trial. It cites Brown’s case as an example of how the City mistreats the unhoused. This mistreatment includes the ongoing removal to other locations, taking and destroying personal property, using excessive and unreasonable force, attempting to silence and punish those who advocate for themselves, and restricting other advocates from assisting the unhoused.
Brown sustained injuries to his eye, face, knees, back and torso. The officers had no reason to believe Brown was violent or armed, yet they clearly used unreasonable and excessive force, all of which is documented on police video cameras.
In addition, the officers on the scene ordered the destruction of all Brown’s property. The destruction of his property is a direct violation of a court order and injunction issued in the Kincaid v. Fresno decision more than a decade ago.
After his release from custody, Brown spoke publicly about his experience. He was assisted in speaking out by Martinez and Mike Rhodes, a journalist and homeless advocate. Only after Brown spoke out was he charged criminally for resisting arrest, possession, trespassing and refusing to leave private property and unlawful lodging. Brown was ultimately found innocent of all charges by a jury after only 90 minutes of deliberation.
For many years, the FPD and other City agencies have harassed unhoused residents of Fresno. Many have been arrested simply because of their homeless status. Many have been issued citations for things that result from being homeless such as loitering, trespassing, public urination, having unlicensed dogs, littering and other conditions that are difficult to avoid while homeless.
Harassment and arrests result in incarceration for petty offenses as well as having warrants issued against them for failure to appear in court or failing to pay a fine.
The City has continued over many years to engage in cleanup sweeps of homeless encampments. Sometimes these sweeps result in the belongings of the unhoused being treated like trash and thrown away. Shelters, tents, clothing, pets, bedding, medicines, appliances, food, utensils and priceless items of sentimental value have been thrown away, often on short or no notice.
Many advocates and others believe the City’s strategy is to continually force people to move from one location to another. Although the city and county have received millions of dollars for housing and homeless services in the past 20 years and many more millions recently, no permanent solution to the crisis has been implemented.
The Housing First approach has been ignored, and instead a failed system of temporary shelters, transitional housing and limited services for the chronically homeless is being used.
A statewide system of shelter operators, service providers and public agencies is wasting billions of dollars perpetuating a self-serving and failed industry that actually exacerbates homelessness. For example, Fresno has not provided any permanent supportive housing for those suffering on the streets since 2016.
Instead, the city is remodeling motels in the motel corridor called Parkway and warehousing those who are removed from encampments in rundown motels, all of this housing is called temporary housing by the city.
There are many different reasons why people become homeless. Sometimes a family crisis or other crisis starts the process—a job loss, a health condition that leads to bankruptcy, a mental health crisis, falling into addiction and substance abuse, losing foster care housing, being evicted for various reasons, being a victim of domestic violence, cannot afford a rent increase, the list goes on—but poverty, inequality, institutionalized racism and the domination of a White, patriarchal elite are the root causes.
Our capitalist economic system perpetuates homelessness, and our amoral culture allows it to happen. If we are serious about ending homelessness, we must recognize that and use that to continue our struggle.