Violence in the Homeless Encampments

Violence in the Homeless Encampments

By Paul T. Jackson

Peace is a basic human need; peace of mind is a mark of good health. Peace flows from within each individual out to other members of the community to which the individual belongs. This reality holds promise for one and all who wish to build a more peaceful world.

Conversely, a troubled, distressing, violent individual may send shockwaves through his community. The potential for the spread of violence is especially great in a community whose members have to fight for their very survival; if they had long done so in their own colonies and communities with varying degrees of success; and if now, under government sanction, they have no shelters in which to insulate themselves from those shockwaves, nor ready access to cookware or a few other belongings that might alleviate the trauma of dispossession of one’s only home and no welcoming alternative.

So traumatized, so unhealthy, so unpeaceful is Fresno’s homeless community that Dr. Robert Marbutt, the renowned authority on homelessness, now compares it to the most violent homeless communities in the world. It’s been said that the scarcity of resources is a notion entertained by warring nations, usually without substantiation in reality.

With regard to Fresno’s homeless, however, scarcity of resources is the reality. In view of the city’s unrelenting measures reported by the former editor-in-chief on Indymedia and with other writers whose troubling accounts have appeared on these pages—measures to disenfranchise homeless people even more than they already were—can we really wonder why conflicts would ensue among the people as they struggle to survive?

Conflicts emerging from the stress of displacement of tent cities wherein the occupants, now empty-handed, had been settled for so many years they defy imputation of the term transient? Conflicts played out in longstanding personal rivalries by individuals who, having bad blood between them, had heretofore chosen to settle in two distant tent cities, only to cross paths after the “cleanups”? Conflicts over social status within tent cities, dissolved with the tent city themselves, in desperate struggles to reclaim it amid the chaos of displacement?

Conflicts, still unresolved, over truly scarce resources, made so by a heartless city policy of disregarding and denying homeless individuals basic human needs, while naïvely proclaiming the 69-unit Renaissance at Santa Clara the one exemplar to which these individuals should aspire as if they were all well-to-do licensed contractors and not makeshift construction workers doing what they can under their awful circumstances?

And, yes, conflicts involving the illegal drug trade that had deepened its roots in some of the homeless encampments downtown, owing to a desperate attempt of some to find an escape route, paved with drug money, from a situation, beyond even the violent norm of the illegal drug trade, created in part by the city’s deprivation of virtually every other means of survival.

Some responsibility for the murderous violence in the homeless community is to be laid at the doorstep of Fresno City Hall. Several abatements or “cleanups” appeared necessary, but the truth of the matter is that the city’s earlier “cleanups” actually fueled the criminality that justified the more recent ones. (But the most recent, the silo camp, is a special case wherein the city acted without apparent justification in “cleaning up” a crime-free, semiautonomous tent city, despite the disposition of the landowner who was amenable to more satisfactory solutions.)

Criminal liability is the catchphrase of the criminal justice system. The criminal law, as any law, does what it can. Those homeless individuals who’ve preyed on other human beings, as well as those who’ve preyed on the homeless, must answer for their crimes in a court of law. And while they do, we who are in Fresno’s larger community must define what we are about, because the city has put our self-definition at issue.

A court’s judgment bears a heavy presumption of finality. The court weighs the facts, acts as the arbiter of witnesses’ testimony and reaches conclusions under the law. Reportage on criminal lawsuits is usually the last word the Fresno Bee has to print on crimes occurring in our community. But theirs is not the final say in what we are as a community. The criminal justice system performs its role, finding individuals culpable for their personal conduct and aiming to punish them for it. The Bee performs its role of churning out the nuts and bolts of criminal cases, capturing the lurid details in the spine-chilling quotes of witnesses, and thereby capturing subscriptions.

But, apart from instances of violence—however reported and whatever the motive for reporting them—it is we who actually define what our community is. As any community, ours is a society in miniature here in the central San Joaquin, a nest of interwoven personal and institutional relationships built on mutual understanding and shared values. Inasmuch as the Community Alliance is an outlet for the voice of the people, it is appropriate to raise the question here: Does the city’s treatment of homeless individuals represent our values?

“There can be no peace without justice and respect for human rights,” writes Irene Kahn, the Bangladeshi international human rights activist. Can we really wonder why a terrible violence emerged in a community treated so unjustly?


Paul T. Jackson is an independent legal services professional living in Clovis. To promote institutional democracy, he created a site,, for student officers at community colleges. Contact him at


  • Mike Rhodes

    Mike Rhodes is the executive director of the Community Alliance, was the editor of this newspaper from 1998 to 2014 and the author of several books. Contact him at

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