By Richard Stone
A visit to Fresno’s homeless encampments, like the ones being dismantled by the City this week as I write, is eye-opening. It is a world of its own. The structures are ramshackle, pieced together from boards and tarps and discarded material. The people are in drab over-used clothing, the men mostly grizzled and many of the inhabitants missing teeth. It is—what else—an impoverished scene.
We know there is drug use and some violence, like everywhere but more out in the open. Yet on my trips there, peace prevailed, and neighborliness. Dogs and cats roam around obviously at home, so presumably cared for. When approached, most folks were friendly and willing to talk.
On the most recent visit for the purpose of this article and accompanied by Mike Rhodes, a man knowing of Rhodes’ work, insisted we each take a pencil (he had a boxful) and apologized that we’d have to sharpen them ourselves. While we were there, an entrepreneur from southeast Fresno came by in his truck, explaining he was picking up his shopping carts before the area’s property was confiscated. Turns out he buys impaired carts, then rents them out to the homeless. “My uncle in L.A.,” he tells us, “made a million this way.” A different world.
I’m writing this article because I was incensed at the destruction of semi-permanent, weather-resistant structures in the latest sweep, leaving the displaced people to start from scratch in finding shelter just as the bad weather is starting. I was angry enough to write a letter to the Fresno Bee (printed Nov. 3) about their coverage of the event headlined “City takes care of homeless.” And I was disturbed enough to call the office of my City Council representative, Oliver Baines, and leave a message. He returned the call three days later, and we had an interesting conversation.
Until now I have gotten my perspective on Fresno’s homeless situation predominantly from Rhodes and his associates, people like Rev. Floyd Harris and Al Williams. These are people I work with on a variety of issues, and I have great admiration for their courage, initiative and integrity. I believe what they tell me about the neglect, harassment and general ill-treatment of the people they work with and, in Williams’ case, lived among for several years. They often express dismay that funds earmarked for the homeless have brought help to so few, whereas City actions seem to make life harder for many.
So, when Council Member Baines told me his version of what is happening, and the following day when I spoke to his assistant and (now only part-time) “homeless czar” Greg Barfield, the contrast in their stories from those of Rhodes et al. was striking. Hence, “two stories of a city.”
Here is the picture I got from the officials. The City has no money budgeted specifically for homeless programs, and Barfield has done wonders identifying money from other sources (e.g., the Housing Authority and Social Services) that can be directed to helping the homeless. He has also been part of the team managing a three-year nonrenewable grant from federal stimulus money that can in part be used for working with homeless people to the end of achieving employability. In other words, his work is tied into large, often unwieldy, bureaucracies with labor-intensive paperwork required. (And, Barfield asks, why don’t you talk to people at the County who get money earmarked for homelessness and find out what they have done?)
In this framework, Baines and Barfield are proud of the work accomplished in getting some 1,500 people off the streets and intervening to prevent some 1,300 from becoming homeless. (They say these figures can be documented online at fresno.gov linked to the American Recovery Reinvestment Act but when I tried to find the figures I couldn’t negotiate the site to find anything about homelessness. Rhodes says he thinks the figures reflect services to a wide range of populations, not only the homeless living on the streets.)
They are proud of participating in opening Renaissance at Trinity, a facility providing 20 permanent housing units, of which six went to people from the area of the current sweeps. And Barfield said the place we were sitting as I interviewed him would be the site of Renaissance at Santa Clara, with construction of 70 units of housing set to start in December. Barfield added that the people already served all have case managers who report on them at least once a month. And that close to 300 surveys have been taken of homeless people in the “Golden State to Santa Fe” area and their needs prioritized for services. (He was, in fact, taking such surveys himself when I found him, by chance—having left a message for him earlier in the day, which he hadn’t gotten yet.)
Both Baines and Barfield expressed some frustration with the unprofessional “do-gooders” like Rhodes, Harris and Williams who, they feel, belittle their work “but aren’t out here with us” doing the preliminaries and recordkeeping necessary for using government money. And here is where I see the huge difference in perception: between those working through governmental agencies trying to establish procedures and institutions “to solve the homeless problem” and those relating to individual homeless people, trying to assist them materially in their immediate situations and allow them to live as they see fit.
Barfield told me that, when offered a chance to live in the “shed city” next to Poverello, or someplace like it, several homeless people rejected the offer as asking them to be in concentration camps. I have visited the sheds and indeed it is very different from living on the street—differences that some obviously like, or at least like the security of, and others don’t. (Rhodes also told me that the “concentration camp” label was applied when the understanding was that all the homeless in the area would be herded into one smallish fenced-in space rather than dispersed to more spacious camping grounds around the city.) But I have heard the question a dozen times, “While there are still people in encampments, why can’t the City at least provide water and port-a-potties and trash bins?” I could not get a direct answer to this question from the officials.
As to current sweeps, Barfield said, “The Monterey Street bridge will be coming down in 60 days, and the sites there have to be vacated for safety.” This contingency—if it actually happens—doesn’t apply to all the encampments being taking down, so why the urgency elsewhere? And why not assist those affected by the sweeps in finding alternative sites rather than just coming in with heavy equipment? No real answers forthcoming. But in Barfield’s defense, I’d say he is doing what he, as one man under directives from above, can do. The issue rests squarely on the desks of the mayor and the city manager, and there has been little show of understanding from those quarters.
What Baines, Barfield and my colleagues all agree on is that our society is culpable for allowing anyone who aspires to better to have to live on the streets the way we see row after row of people doing. Some need and want the institutional “step-up” that currently is being offered—little by little, to a few, with conditions, for limited times. Others want only the chance to live their lives with access to a few amenities and safety: This could be offered to all fairly easily and inexpensively—especially when we think about the costs in, say, forcing people out (utilizing hazmat technology and heavy equipment, with a dozen police officers lounging around all day “in case…”) or the expense of emergency room treatment for illnesses exacerbated by lack of basic care.
In these conversations, I have come to appreciate the institutional work being done to alleviate “the homeless problem.” But it is people like Rhodes and Harris and Williams—and earlier Mike McGarvin—who act directly, compassionately and humanely in response to people they encounter. They are the ones who have brought attention where no attention was given and who appeal to our conscience to get involved personally, not just as taxpayers. They do not have all the answers and maybe not even the better answers.
But for people like Randy Little (sitting in front of his shelter with his dog Repo) who asks, “Why did the City turn off the water we were using?” or Manuel Hernandez who says, “I put my name on their list, but they’re telling me to move now” or the old guy who says, “Mostly I like it out here, but it would be nice to be warm in the winter” it’s the sleeping bag or the trash bin or the water tap now that seems to matter most. And as Williams says, “It may not be too long before we look to these folks as innovators of the survival skills a lot of us will need.” The guys on the street add, “We see new faces out here every day, and they’re getting younger.”
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.