A homeless woman putting her belongings into her car before municipal cleanup workers take them. Photo by Emily Garcia

Solutions for Homelessness Cannot Keep Up

Downtown Fresno holds some of the city’s fastest-growing homeless encampments. Tents, personal belongings and homeless individuals fill the streets.

Since 2020, the pandemic has put Americans in at-risk situations that lead to homelessness. Unfortunately, California has among the highest unemployment and homeless rates in the United States. According to StreetTeam.org, there are more than 580,000 homeless people in the country, with California accounting for 51% of them.

In Los Angeles County, there are 63,706 people living on the streets. Total homelessness in Fresno and Madera grew from 2,508 people in 2019 to 3,641 people in 2020, according to January’s point-in-time count—three months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the central San Joaquin Valley.

Among all the chaos caused by Covid-19, these individuals choose to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Covid hasn’t affected my life. I have been fine so far here,” says a Fresno encampment resident (all those interviewed asked not to be identified).

Not many people in these encampments seem too bothered by the pandemic. However, a majority of the residents were following public safety protocols. Many of them wore masks, and at least half were vaccinated.

Nearly halfway through 2021, the homeless community was prioritized for the vaccines, months after many U.S. residents received theirs.

According to the Homeless Research Institute, as of 2019, more than half a million Americans have become homeless due to Covid-19 and the numbers continue to increase rapidly.

Despite nearly 700 homeless housing programs throughout California, 21 of which are in Fresno, there are still more people living on the streets than in shelters.

Now that the homeless crisis is escalating even quicker as a consequence of the pandemic, social services have become even rarer.

People who seek help and are lucky enough to be accepted into one of the programs are there for only short periods of time. The rehabilitation programs are different from living in encampments, and the participants are able to receive this supplemental aid anywhere from one night to three months depending on the program.

Becoming sick, whether the common cold or Covid-19, is often a cause of homelessness and still affects those who are already there.

“Everyone here is my friend. If I say ‘hi’ to you when we cross paths, I consider you my friend. So we notice when someone is no longer here especially because of Covid,” says another encampment resident.

Some of the homeless in these areas end up hospitalized because of Covid. Even so, the mortality rate is a lot lower than what many would assume. As homeless people are somewhat separated from the rest of the city, their smaller communities have less risk. Conversely, there have been more outbreaks in actual shelters.

Shelters and programs with housing facilities require vaccinations for both their employees and residents.

The rise in homelessness has also made the encampment residents more desperate to survive. The violence rates are increasing just as quickly as the homeless numbers are.

“Women are the most at risk in the streets. All women are having to constantly be aware and be prepared to defend themselves and their things,” mentions an encampment resident.

The female homeless population is constantly being attacked within the micro communities by violent male attackers. Everyday it becomes more and more dangerous for these women living in the streets because everyone is trying their best to survive.

Basic human nature, like having to relieve oneself, is now considered an existential risk.

Fresno County has attempted to house as many homeless as possible and provide what it can to others. Next door to the Poverello House and across the train tracks, there are transitional living centers. Those who are not able to secure a spot in these programs linger in the corresponding streets and await their opportunity.

Many homeless can be seen with their furry companions by their side. Covid has affected not only people but also animals.

“I adopted my German shepherd when she was only a few months old, and I got her off the streets. I also have two cats that I picked up too,” says an encampment resident.

The city of Fresno does not want to turn anyone away that is in need of help, but resources are scarce during the pandemic.

One encampment resident says, “We used to be able to go to the Poverello House or a women’s home for a shower. That got taken away from us too.”

Because of the lack of resources, many individuals wander the streets in search of their next form of survival—continually being denied resources and having to find somewhere to reestablish themselves.

There are currently fewer than 20 tents along H Street because that encampment had been forcefully evacuated. The entire block had been filled with people seeking a place to stay, but they were forced to leave.

Police officers are taking the homeless crisis into their hands and asking the residents to pack up what they can and leave. Whatever belongings they are not able to carry or pack are taken by city workers. 

Because many Fresno residents have reported the rapid growth of encampments near Highway 180, these micro-communities are being shut down left and right without being allowed to relocate. That causes the homeless to spread out along other areas and ultimately return to where they had been removed.

  • Emily Garcia is a fellow of the Community Alliance newspaper. She is a journalism and mass communications major at Fresno State.

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