“I could care less about Disney on Ice when there are people [not] waking up, dead on the streets. I am the one who has to drive through Tower seeing bodies lying there, lifeless, because the warming centers are not open and they should have been,” said Fresno City Council Member Miguel Arias at the Jan. 5 regular Council meeting.
“I have been asking for a long time, what is the plan for more shelters?”
Arias was responding to the city manager’s question about a suggestion from himself and Council Members Luis Chavez and Annalisa Perea to declare a housing emergency and consider using parts of the Convention Center as temporary shelters and her question involved what to do about planned events such as the upcoming Disney on Ice show.
The proposal was tabled for further discussion, however, the Council did vote to declare a “shelter crisis” and agreed that the declaration was a starting point for further discussion.
Arias responded to questions about the costs of running a shelter at the Convention Center. “We are already spending millions of dollars on HART [Homeless Assistance Response Team] just to shift [unhoused] people from one part of town to the other,” he said.
“I would like to acknowledge that I am a guilty party, as I too, have asked city staff to go and clean up encampments.”
He went on to criminalize those unfortunate enough to be unhoused, exclaiming that “once they become a camp of five people, 10 people and 20 people, the drug elements, the crime elements all take over.”
Undeniably, a number of unhoused people have addiction issues. The 2022 Point in Time Count cites about 45% do, not the majority. Many become addicted after being on the street for a while.
The misery of life on the streets and seeking to escape that misery with drug use should be understandable. In addition, drug policies and the war on drugs have made drugs plentiful, especially on the streets of Fresno.
Crime is prevalent on the street, however, most of the victims of crime are the unhoused themselves, especially the elderly and disabled.
Homeless camps can provide stability, safety, autonomy, community, access to services, storage for belongings and overdose prevention. If Arias and other city officials were serious about reducing drug use and crime, they would support more drug treatment programs and other social services. If encampments were supported with water, toilets, waste collection, fire equipment and naloxone kits, they could be made safer.
Continual displacement causes immense harm. Unhoused people who are constantly displaced lose connections with friends, family and services. Displacement causes mental and physical health problems.
People have no control over their lives and possessions. They are relentlessly pushed daily to move on with no place to go, and it further traumatizes their already difficult lives.
Business owners and residents should take heed of the suffering they cause when calling the City to complain about a homeless encampment. There, but for fortune, go you or I.
At the Jan. 5 Council meeting, advocates and several unhoused individuals spoke about HART and its daily abuse of the unhoused community. That includes daily sweeps and having all their possessions thrown away, even in rainy weather, with constant harassment and humiliating treatment.
A woman named Gloria spoke emotionally about how she and her brother suddenly became homeless after they could not get enough money together to rent an apartment. She said the tent that they were living in was torn down that very morning.
Unhoused resident Sean Anthony said, “Our possessions were thrown away this morning just as my pregnant wife and I were about to move into an apartment. We lost both our IDs.” Without identification, they might not get the apartment.
In further testimony, Gloria Wyatt said, “I am not used to being homeless, but I cannot cover rent. Our tent was torn down this morning, and we have no place to go. I am scared.”
Another unhoused woman, Crystal, described having her tent taken away by HART.
The City Council members asked the public speakers no questions about HART. Council Member Mike Karbassi seemed to question the integrity of the unhoused persons who spoke by saying, “We’ve heard testimony from folks, but we don’t know the whole story.”
No sympathy was offered by any Council member, and there was no explanation for HART’s actions to tear down camps during storms when there is no available shelter space.
The suggestion to convert a part of the Convention Center to a shelter was controversial and met with opposition from Council Members Garry Bredefeld and Karbassi. In the end, there was simply an agreement to continue the discussion in the future.
Mayor Jerry Dyer later weighed in on the issue and stated that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would not approve an aggregate shelter at the Convention Center because of Covid guidelines. This statement is rich because the mayor and the Council continuously violate CDC guidelines to end encampment sweeps to prevent the spread of Covid.
The important issue of the lack of shelter beds was initially raised by Arias because the current motel shelters are scheduled to be converted to permanent housing, and the City has no plan to place the current homeless residents of the motels anywhere. Advocates have been pressing the mayor and the Council for months to develop a plan to no avail. Soon, there will be a dire shelter emergency if no action is taken.
Under pressure from the community and advocates, at the previous Council meeting on Dec. 22, the Council adopted a measure to open four warming centers throughout the city at community centers with extended hours through Jan. 31, every night, regardless of the temperature.
This was a major victory for advocates who have been lobbying the City every winter to do this. Last winter, the City opened only one warming center and only when the temperature dropped below 35 degrees!
In another development, finally recognizing the threat cold weather poses to unhoused people, the City opened the four warming centers as storm relief centers all day during a weeklong storm from Jan. 9 through Jan. 15, providing three meals a day. The centers filled up quickly and remained full.
Advocates continue to lobby to keep these shelters open all winter. People using the shelters express extreme gratitude for having a warm, safe place to stay and sleep without the ever-present fear of sleeping on the streets.
In more positive news, the California Interagency Council on Homelessness recently implemented the Encampment Resolution Funding (ERF) program. The ERF program will fund actionable, person-centered local proposals that resolve the experience of unsheltered homelessness for people residing in encampments.
Resolving these experiences of homelessness will necessarily address the safety and wellness of people within encampments, resolve critical encampment concerns and transition individuals into interim shelter with clear pathways to permanent housing or directly into permanent housing, using data-informed, non-punitive, low-barrier, person-centered, Housing First and coordinated approaches.
Proposals could bolster existing, successful models and/or support new approaches that provide safe, stable and ultimately permanent housing for homeless people in encampments.
The California Interagency Council on Homelessness will
- Assist local jurisdictions in ensuring the safety and wellness of people experiencing homelessness in encampments.
- Provide grants to local jurisdictions and continuums of care to resolve critical encampment concerns and transition individuals into safe and stable housing.
- Encourage a data-informed, coordinated approach to address encampment concerns.
The ERF program was initially authorized in 2021 through AB 140, which allocated $50 million for what would become the first round of funding. SB 197 amended the program in 2022 and allocated an additional $300 million for Round 2 of ERF funding.
It is unclear if the City has applied for this funding. The practice of breaking up encampments continues, and this funding is badly needed.