Special Section – How to End Homelessness in Fresno

Special Section – How to End Homelessness in Fresno
Image by mark O'Rourke via Flickr Creative Commons

Below are five articles about homelessness in Fresno.  Each of these articles illustrate a different approach to ending homelessness.  It is our hope that these articles will stimulate a discussion and move the discussion about how to end homelessness forward.  Let us know what you think!


Food Not Bombs 14 Years Strong

By Kelly Borkert

Every Saturday in Fresno at Roeding Park, Food Not Bombs serves a meal of beans, rice, soup and salad for the homeless. This weekly meal service has gone on since 1996. Sometimes a little late with the serving tables and containers, a line of customers forms for the warm food, bread and pastries brought out for those who want it.

One stalwart attendee, 76-year-old Tom Machado, regularly drives his truck down from Oakhurst loaded with clothes, arriving early and unloading them with the help of a crowd that awaits the opportunity. The bags of clean, high-quality clothes for men and women of all ages serves a large crowd of recipients, many of whom have an immediate need for them. Tom has spent years providing food and clothing to residents in the area of the park, being involved with Fresno Food Not Bombs since the beginning (a founding “silverback” along with still-standing Keith Jackson).

Food Not Bombs volunteers serve meals every Saturday at 1 p.m. at Roeding Park. They can use your help.

What Food Not Bombs offers is a little food and a lot of love. That there is a place for anyone to find food and friendship every Saturday and Sunday from Food Not Bombs surely means a lot. Decent food and excellent clothing, free to all. Bicycle repairs by Reyes “Big Daddy” Garza, and sleeping bags for those in need. Priceless services available to those able to be at Roeding Park on Saturday afternoons starting at 1 p.m., on the north side of Storyland children’s park.

Other opportunities exist for people to obtain free clothes, food and meals from various sources. It might seem that Tom does too much work for every truckload he has delivered to the park, when many of the recipients could possibly drive, bicycle or walk to another source of clothing, although usually not as nice as Tom’s collected donations from a United Methodist Church thrift shop in Oakhurst.

Upon further reflection, watching people every week, looking for and finding what they need right there, as they have for so many years every Saturday, it becomes clear Tom is serving a regular, sizable, satisfied and catered-to clientele (you got any size 8 boots, Tom?). But also any number of people who were simply lucky enough to find just what they needed, right where they were. And they might not have been able to look elsewhere, let alone find anything akin to what Tom regularly provides. That’s when you realize, Tom’s efforts are meant not just to help anyone, but that particular person, right when they needed it, as well.

People line up to receive a nutritious vegetarian meal at a Food Not Bombs event. FNB serves food on Saturday (Roeding Park) and Sunday (Courthouse Park).

Once all the meals have been served, and it is time to load up, Tom looks for volunteers to pick up unwanted clothes. These are bagged and put back in Tom’s truck so he can take them elsewhere on the way home. If the hours and effort put into bringing these clothes were calculated, as well as removing the unwanted items, some pretty spectacular numbers would be generated. Without even accounting for the previous years he spent in southern California involved with Catholic Workers, you can see he is owed a generous recompense.

Measured in the sincere, prolific and heartfelt “thanks” he receives from participants before, during and after each Saturday’s meal, he is well paid. Certainly, everyone who has seen what happens, how it happens and what Tom does to make things happen has the same response-“Thanks Tom!”

Thanks to everyone who makes it work, and especially those who make it worthwhile by being there-patiently waiting, every week. And making use of what we all do together.

Come out to Roeding Park any Saturday around 1 p.m. and give the food and company a try. It’s priceless.
Kelly Borkert may be late bringing the tables. Don’t leave. He can be reached at kellyborkert@hotmail.com or most Saturdays at Wesley United Methodist Church (1343 E. Barstow Ave.) from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.


Why Fresno First Steps Home?

By Greg Barfield

Mayor Ashley Swearengin recently announced the launch of Fresno First Steps Home, an initiative to augment the efforts of the City and County of Fresno to address homelessness through a successful Housing First model that is achieving impressive results in our community.

Fresno First Steps Home builds on the success that the city and county have already experienced with our Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing (HPRP) effort, which was funded through the federal government as part of the economic stimulus package in 2008.

The federal HPRP program provided the city and the county just above $1.5 million a year for up to three years. These funds have been used to prevent people from falling into homelessness if they are within 14 days of losing housing, as well as to provide housing to those who are without proper shelter.

Since November 2009, we have served more than 400 individuals with our HPRP program. Unfortunately, because the demand for services is so great, we will exhaust our HPRP funds before the end of the third year of the program. In addition, there is a need for ongoing funding to provide various other support services to sustain those who receive housing.

Under the mayor’s initiative, a nonprofit organization has been formed to raise additional funds through private sources. These funds will be granted to local service providers who are implementing the strategies contained in Fresno’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. This Housing First plan is built on the premise that by transitioning people from the streets to adequate housing, it’s much easier for them to effectively manage other challenges in their lives that likely led to their homelessness in the first place.

Fresno First Steps Home is based on models in Denver and Atlanta, where the public and private sectors join together in the effort to prevent and end the cycle of homelessness.

It takes a multitude of programs and services to address the needs of the more than 3,600 individuals who are living on our city streets, as well as the other 10,500 people who are living in cars, RVs and other places not meant for human habitation. The current economic climate is slowly beginning to turn around, but the effects will linger for some time.

Mayor Swearengin has challenged Fresnans to participant by donating a buck a month or $12 a year. Some can and will do more. If just 20% of Fresnans donated $12 a year, that would be $1.2 million, about what we get now under the federal stimulus funds.

A local board of directors will oversee the activities of Fresno First Steps Home. The goal is to ensure that 95% of the donated funds go to direct service, which includes financial assistance for rent/utilities payments, case management, outreach, supportive services, data collection and evaluation.

We have been pleased with the community’s positive response to Fresno First Steps Home. For more information, visit www.FresnoFirstStepsHome.org or e-mail homelesssupport@fresno.gov.
Gregory Barfield is the City of Fresno’s homeless prevention and policy manager and oversees the day-to-day implementation of the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. He can be reached at homelesssupport@fresno.gov.


Squatting Is the Answer

By Josh Cranston and Matt Ford

One of the greatest ailments of our society is our lack of community.  Neighbors don’t know neighbors and don’t care to, people don’t tend to help people unless there is some personal gain.  The one group of people in Fresno who have the greatest sense of community are those who we call the homeless. But they really aren’t homeless; they have homes, in tents, on city sidewalks, in encampments where they are constantly evicted and harassed by the city and police department.  I would invite anyone to take a stroll through these encampments and see if you can’t feel the sense of community so prevalent there.

The city feels that they are an eyesore and detract from the city’s revitalization efforts.  While the city has its 10-year plan and has been handing out a few housing vouchers, temporarily putting a small handful of the homeless into homes, it has become obvious that the problem is too big for the city or any nonprofit to handle.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bank-owned, abandoned, foreclosed houses in Fresno. Why not allow homeless families to be caretakers of these homes until a new owner can be found?

This is possibly the greatest contradiction in the world to any humane person that we have thousands of empty bank foreclosed homes and thousands living on the streets without homes.  The encampments downtown are literally directly next to empty buildings.  It goes beyond ridiculous when we realize that many of these foreclosures came as the result of predatory lending and that these same banks were bailed out with tax dollars.  The criminals were rewarded and the victims have lost their homes and have been criminalized.

It is time to take two problems and make them one solution: End the contradiction.  People need to reclaim the empty houses and abandoned buildings of Fresno and let those with no roof over their head use them to get their lives on track.  Not as criminals, as those in power would portray it, but as neighbors, as community.  We can talk to the neighbors, let them know the situation.  Clean the place up, don’t play the radio loud late at night. If the neighbors feel like you are a positive addition to their community, then they aren’t going to call the cops on you.  Practice mutual respect.  Eventually, the cops probably will come and evict you, then you just go to the next house.  Even if they do put you in jail, the jails are overcrowded, and you’ll be out in no time.

The Raging Grannies sing songs in support of the homeless at a Human Rights Day event in December 2009. In the foreground is a map showing locations in Fresno where bank-owned, abandoned, foreclosed houses are located.

Empty houses tend to attract unwanted activities. Filling these houses and giving people a chance to get off the streets and get their lives together is a win-win situation.  It can lead to stronger communities, which are vital as the economy continues to get worse and we realize we need each other to survive.  It is abominable for the homeless to be criminalized while it is the banks who made many of them homeless; we know who the real criminals are.  It is time to solve our own problems rather than waiting on the bureaucrats and poverty pimps to get their cut and PR time while continuously failing to put a dent in the situation.
Josh Cranston is a member of the Fresno Brown Berets and a strong supporter of communities coming together and solving their own problems.  His e-mail address is  phalsephasod@mail.fresnostate.edu.

Matt Ford is a student at CSU Fresno and an organizer with unit4ed.  For more information, see www.unite4ed.org.


Eco-Villages Can House the Homeless: An Interview with Art Dyson

By Mike Rhodes

Art Dyson is a Fresno architect who has a passion for building creative and innovative housing. Dyson was on the city’s commission to develop the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and continued working on the homeless issue even after the group finished its work. Recently, I talked with him about his vision for eco-villages on the Community Alliance “Street Heat” radio show on KFCF-FM 88.1. Here is what he had to say:

Art Dyson would like to build a series of Eco-Villages in Fresno. These houses for the homeless will be ecologically friendly, environmentally sustainable and provide a place where people can live with dignity and respect as they improve their lives and move out of homelessness.

Dyson: You would take a group of homeless people that have already learned how to live together; they have already developed a charter about how to run an encampment. You take those folks and put them in a holistic setting that would address many issues. It would be self-sustaining, it would be using recycled materials, it would be in as beautiful of an environment as is possible, so that when people drove by, it would look like a park. It would be off the grid; we would use rainwater harvesting, photovoltaic cells for electricity and geothermal heating and cooling.

They would grow their own food, they would have a common restroom [and] laundry room, and then a huge part of this in each one of these villages would be the economic driver. That would be a building that would possibly be built out of straw bales or used tires, and that component would be a venue for the folks that live in that community. So, if you have a series of artists you might have pottery wheels where people do pottery work. They might teach pottery classes. And they would have a venue to sell their pottery. If they had woodworking skills, they might take discarded furniture and recycle or refinish it and put it back on the market and sell it there. They might teach other people how to refinish wood.

This is not intended as a permanent home; it is intended as a way to get people back into the job market. They would have the legal right to live there. They would have a safe environment to live in, and they would have the opportunity to develop skills and develop a job/employment resume.

Rhodes: I have heard you talk about eco-villages before and compare them to what currently exists, that is, the harsh reality and the loud sounds that homeless people endure as a part of their lives right now. Talk a little about how a person’s environment affects them as human beings.

Dyson: There is a study of neuroscience that has come to the forefront in the last few years. It substantiated information that we have known anecdotally over the years. We know that when you are in a natural environment the human condition improves. Studies have verified that; it has shown us that in a hospital setting, for example, if one has a window and looks out on a natural landscape, they use less medication, they recover faster, their spirits are higher. Everything is elevated from that situation.

We know from studies that when you have the look of a natural environment, as opposed to what most homeless folks have right now-next to a railroad track or a paved hard-scape area-without any of the sounds of nature that have soothed human beings for eons, aggression and violence increase. But with a natural environment and with the wind and birds singing, aggression and violence decrease.

Everything we do is affected by the environment we are in. So, it is either a draining environment or an uplifting environment. That is what excites me: Putting people into an uplifting environment. As an architect, where my heart is-is in trying to uplift the human spirit. I’m trying to do more than just provide shelter from the elements, but to embrace the elements and provide a shelter for the human spirit, something that will uplift the soul of a human being.

To listen to the complete interview, visit www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/05/29/18649168.php.
Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. He can be reached by e-mail at editor@fresnoalliance.com.


We Need a Movement to End Homelessness

By Jeremy Alderson

These days the term radical denotes a radical departure from
current policy but not from common sense. Current policy, among its many sins, perpetuates a social structure that brazenly enriches the few while impoverishing the many. The ubiquitous priests of conventional wisdom demand we pretend that our misfortune is founded on good principles that just happened to work out badly – kind of like somebody who thinks he’s Napoleon insisting you salute him.

Yet no one really believes that the current order is either just or irrevocable. People who quote Jefferson about watering the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots will join with people who quote Zinn on social struggle in pronouncing American democracy a work in progress. And even those who vehemently oppose entitlements for Americans concede that, as Americans, we are entitled to run our own country.

Those of us who think we ought to have a more equitable distribution of wealth can’t just call our friends at City Hall or the White House to get the job done, so our options are limited. In fact, there are just three of them, unless you count doing nothing.

We can strive to radiate enough peace and love to levitate the political sphere. I’m all for spiritual growth, but I have as much confidence in this as I do in flapping my arms and flying.

We can work toward violent revolution. I oppose this for many reasons, including an attachment to our current constitution and nervousness about destabilizing a nuclear power with more weapons than anyone can count.

Third, we can form a movement along the lines of movements that have succeeded in the past, such as the campaigns for women’s suffrage, unions and civil rights. Following their example means not just raising consciousness but also raising hell. That’s because movements exist to inflict pain, whether it’s the pain of awakened conscience or the pain of comatose finance.

On that last score, let us note that we didn’t get unions because anyone convinced the bosses that collective bargaining was a good idea. We got them because people went on strike, costing the bosses more than they could afford to lose.

Similarly, the civil rights movement didn’t just march. It also inflicted economic pain on public and private entities, such as the city of Montgomery and Woolworth’s.

If we want to change America, we must inflict economic pain on the people who are inflicting economic pain on us.

If you want to change Fresno – including, I hope, getting a safe place for every homeless person – I’d suggest taking a look at the Fresno Redevelopment Agency and the Fresno Economic Development Agency. It’s on account of trying to make more places for making money that the city herds homeless people and destroys their encampments. I’m not a Fresnan, but if it were up to me, I’d be looking for a business connected to a development project to boycott, as an opening move in a campaign geared to last until victory.
Jeremy Weir Alderson, aka Nobody, is the founder of the Homelessness Marathon and the Free United Homeless Coalition. He may be reached at radio@lightlink.com.


  • Mike Rhodes

    Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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