By Mike Rhodes
Kate* is a retirement age homeless woman, she has breast cancer and until recently lived in a tool shed at the Poverello House (a social service agency for the homeless in downtown Fresno). She was evicted from her tool shed in the “Village of Hope,” she says, because she came back late from the hospital, where she was receiving treatment for her medical condition.
“I’m going through Stage 3 breast cancer treatment, and with that I get nose bleeds, so I decided on Saturday I would take care of my chores before I left for the hospital. I was worried because I could not get the bleeding to stop. I walked to Community Hospital, but because of flu season there were 100 people there and it was a 12-hour wait to be checked,” Kate said.
When Kate returned, she was told that she was being evicted from her tool shed, for not following the rules. She ended up on the streets outside the Poverello House and Rescue Mission with her clothes and little else.
Kate was given a tent by a friend and set it up on Santa Clara Street, in front of the Poverello House. Since the demolition of the homeless encampments late last year, the police do not allow anyone to keep their tent up during the day. Kate put her tent up at night and in the morning went into the Poverello to use the restroom. When she returned, a Fresno Police Department (FPD) officer was in the process of having her property removed.
She told the officer it was her property and that she wanted it back. “He told me I could have it if I asked him nicely. I told him that I’m not going to beg you for my stuff. If you are going to take it, just give me the address and I will be fine.” Kate said the officer asked if she was just going to let him take it away and “I said, but what else can I do? I’m not going to beg you. It is embarrassing enough (to be living on the streets). I think he was getting some kind of enjoyment out of the whole thing.”
Kate eventually got her property back, but this incident illustrates what is happening all over downtown, as the City of Fresno continues to crack down on the homeless. Bob,* a homeless man sitting on the curb on Santa Clara Street in mid-March, told me that the police come by several times a day taking people’s property and handing out citations.
“The other day a friend of mine was sitting over there, and the police wrote him a citation for having his property with him. They said his property was trash and it was littering the street,” Bob said.
The FPD has established a four-member homeless task force that focuses exclusively on removing homeless people’s property, giving them citations for minor infractions and keeping the pressure on them to “move on.” Bob said people were being given citations for crossing the street and throwing a cigarette butt on the road. “Some of my friends have 10–15 citations. Nobody is paying them. It is just a waste of time and resources!”
Kate said, “I’m wondering how long the judges are going to take up all of this time, because these people are homeless. They don’t have any money. These tickets range from $100 to $500. The officers don’t care; they just keep writing them. To me, it is like harassment. It is a waste of taxpayer money.”
On March 6, the Fresno City Council passed an ordinance that makes it easier for the police to remove shopping carts from the homeless. This follows ordinances to stop the homeless from using median islands to ask for money and another one that prevents the homeless from aggressive panhandling.
These “quality of life” ordinances are having an impact as the homeless experience more pressure to be constantly on the move and never have a place to stay that is safe and secure. As we were saying goodbye, following the interview for this article, Kate broke down and cried, saying that the stress of living on the street, the insecurity of having to always be on the move and worry about whether her tent and sleeping bag were being taken away have led her to stop the cancer treatments at the hospital. The level of stress was too high for her to continue. Without treatment, Kate will probably not survive for long.
The mayor and City Council members want an end to homelessness, they want to revitalize downtown and they are willing to put the resources necessary into making this happen. Kate’s experience makes the argument that there is a human cost to eliminating the homeless and gentrifying downtown so builders, developers and businesspeople can make money. That cup of coffee the urban hipsters drink, as they watch cars drive down the newly redesigned Fulton Street, will be built on the foundation of Kate and other homeless people’s lives.
Mike Rhodes is the former editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. He has been following homeless issues in Fresno for more than 10 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The names of homeless people used in this article have been changed to reduce the chance of retaliation against them.