Image by Michael Pecirno via Flickr Creative Commons

Speaking up for the Homeless

Human Rights Day is an international event sponsored by the United Nations. In Fresno, a press conference was held on December 10 where speakers at a gathering of advocates for the homeless lambasted the inability of the city and the county to address homeless problems. Specific ways of taking action to address the homeless issue were outlined.

Although there were many supporters and organizations who wanted to address the homeless problem, the local news media and government showed little support or concern for the event. This reaction is indicative of a dysfunctional view of the homeless problem.

The event’s spokesperson, Rev. Floyd Harris from Street Ministry in west Fresno, gave a rousing speech in which he pegged the City of Fresno as “perpetuating a fraud” in relation to its dealings with the homeless. Rev. Harris cited the poorly managed funds for the homeless. He was referring to the looming federal stimulus money (close to $5 million) that Fresno’s homelessness czar, Greg Barfield, has been promising to dispense for several months. The release of these funds has stipulations that seem to change weekly. Based on the city’s history of dealing with the homeless, these changes and delays are seen as extremely suspect and a possible rerouting of federal money through government and nonprofit agencies.

Rev. Harris’s voice boomed, “We have a government that is supposed to be looking out for the well-being of its homeless citizens. This is the same government who went out and violated the human rights of the homeless they were supposed to be helping,” referring to the evictions and destruction of homeless property in 2006.

These actions came from an unsound way of thinking about the homeless that sees the homeless as flawed citizens who are not worth saving. As a result of this thinking, the City tries to solve the homeless problem by chasing them off, imprisoning them, putting them in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, evicting them or harassing them until they leave town. The City is not trying to end homelessness; rather, it is trying to rid the city of the examples of homelessness.

Mike Rhodes, the editor of the Community Alliance who is known (on the street) as the “Messiah” for the homeless in Fresno, said that until the city changes the way it thinks about the homeless problem it will not solve the problem and will waste millions of dollars in the process.

“I think the people at City Hall don’t like to think about the homeless,” Rhodes said. “They treat them as errant children that need to be disciplined. City Hall doesn’t address the problem. They work to discipline the people by putting them in rehab, prison, making them leave town or they let them die. None of this works to end homelessness, but the city keeps doing it because of their short-sighted, backward vision.”

The City’s funding is designed to prevent homeowners from falling into foreclosure. Once a citizen becomes homeless, the City will offer rehab, imprisonment, eviction or harassment. The City will not even offer and will adamantly refuse to put out dumpsters or Porto-potties to enable the homeless to live in sanitary conditions. These conditions are inhuman. The City could only treat the homeless this way because they see them as something other than human.

There have been small, short-lived attempts to offer public housing for the homeless. This has been proven to be the most effective and cost-efficient way of dealing with the homeless problem. “Housing First” is a proven program that provides housing for the homeless. Supportive and rehabilitative services are then provided for the homeless citizen. The problem is the way governments must think and view the homeless will have to change. They will have to provide the homeless with housing before that citizen stops drinking or while that citizen is still in the throes of mental illness.

Barfield was championing the Housing First program, but he has recently shifted in his thinking to follow in the traditional thoughts and actions of the City.

Rhodes says that Housing First is less expensive than having homeless people on the street. “Multiple issues develop from living on the street. These homeless go to the Emergency Room and get checked into the hospital. This costs the City about a $100K a year per homeless person. Housing First could be managed for as little as $10K per person per year.”

The City seems oblivious. Either they don’t see or they don’t care. Homeless conditions are deteriorating. The City planned to evict the F Street encampment on December 16 but rescheduled that to January 6. The homeless are having their tents removed, and the City isn’t giving the homeless an option to go anywhere else. Does the City actually think this will rid these homeless from the city? Does the City think these homeless will not set up camp somewhere else?

Before the press conference, there was a meeting of homeless advocates, with representatives from Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose. John Kraintz, from Sacramento’s Homeless Safeground, came to support the homeless in Fresno. He suggested that rising rents have collided with falling wages, which has caused a dysfunctional society. He thinks if foreclosed properties aren’t rented then the entire city of neighborhoods will fall into urban decay. “I ask the government to stop concentrating on banks and corporations and start enabling small businesses. Think about the people. We have to make jobs,” Kraintz said.

Sandy Perry, from San Jose’s CHAM Deliverance Ministry, came to “express solidarity and build unity, exchange ideas and educate each other.” Perry explained that “many people in the United States are not aware that they have a right for shelter, food and medical care. If these citizens don’t have these attributes they see the lack as their fault.”

Perry called on the government to return to providing affordable housing to all citizens. “We used to have a public housing program dating back to the 1930s. Every person in the USA had access to affordable housing until 1970. That’s when governments stopped funding.”

The next big action on the homeless issue will be in San Francisco on January 20. The “Thousands of Voices, One Message: Fund and Build Affordable Housing!” rally to demand an end to mass homelessness and the criminalization of the poor will occur from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the San Francisco Federal Building (90 7th St.).

Nigel Medhurst is a freelance writer and photographer in the Fresno area. E-mail him at nigelmedhurst@hotmail.com

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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