‘It’s like ping-pong, except with people.’ Scenes from a Fresno homeless camp cleanup | Opinion
Before being evicted from his camping spot on a chilly Wednesday morning, Chris North piled his possessions atop a two-wheeled cart he borrowed from a fellow member of Fresno’s unhoused community: a blue family-sized tent; a folding reclining chair; an assortment of tarps and blankets; and a propane tank.
“You know what’s crazy?” he asked with a grin. “I came here with two backpacks. The rest of this stuff, people gave me.”
North’s dog Elliott, who adopted his owner by following him 2 miles one evening and turning up outside his tent, stood nearby waiting for the next move.
Where were they headed?
“I’m going to figure it out moment by moment,” North replied. “That’s the way I’ve been living my life the last couple years.”
North told me he has been homeless for 18 months following a divorce. For the last two he has been living in a homeless camp that sprouted up on vacant lots behind two of the Parkway Drive motels converted to emergency homeless shelters with state and federal funding.
City officials have had their collective eye on this particular homeless camp for weeks, if not longer. In early January, the Homeless Assistance Response Team initiated the tear-down process before relenting when record-setting rain started to fall (and in response to criticism that made its way to the Jan. 5 Fresno City Council meeting).
This time, for the estimated 38 people camped at the site, there would be no reprieve. Starting a week ago, green placards were posted informing residents (in English and Spanish) of Wednesday’s “trespass and cleanup.”
“Any individuals loitering or residing in this area are trespassing and will need to immediately move off this site and remove any personal property they own,” the placards read.
What “individuals” weren’t told is that the vacant lot where most of them were camped is owned by the city of Fresno. (Some were camped on an adjacent lot owned by JD Home Rentals.)
City’s HART team out in force
When I turned up at 7:30 a.m. — an hour before the scheduled cleanup — the HART team was already out in force. Present were several Fresno police officers, members of the city’s solid waste management crew (including a forklift operator) and Poverello House staff. Three city code enforcement officers arrived later.
Campers who wished to have items placed in storage (aka a shipping container near H and Divisadero streets) were allowed to do so for a maximum of 90 days — provided the items were unsoiled and not perishable foods.
“If I were you I’d take this opportunity to downsize as much as possible,” Fresno police Sgt. Steven Jaquez advised a young woman who appeared to be in her 20s. “You need to travel light.”
The woman nodded her head.
Where were these unhoused members of our community expected to go?
None of them, so far as I can tell, were offered rooms at one of the homeless shelters owned by the city and Fresno Housing Authority on Parkway Drive. (No vacancy, apparently.) Rather, two women were offered beds at Naomi’s House while an older man was offered a bunk at Bridge Point.
“We try to offer services to the most vulnerable people first,” said Crystal Willis, the outreach coordinator for Poverello House.
Unfortunately, Willis could not convince either of the women to take up her offer and the older man was balking unless he received the top bunk.
“I’m going to keep trying,” said Willis, who used to be homeless herself.
A 2018 ruling by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (aka Martin v. Boise) found that cities cannot enforce no-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds for their entire homeless population. However, according to legal interpretations I found online, it does not mean cities cannot enforce any camping restrictions on public property.
So Fresno, which still lacks sufficient shelter beds despite significant additions to its inventory, seems to be operating in a legal gray area.
Most will remain on the streets
A few of the unhoused individuals living at the camp found refuge with family members. However, most will remain on the streets — just in a less visible place.
North and others were headed to a nearby location that I agreed not to disclose. No matter, really. Fresno homeless advocate Dez Martinez told me city officials were already aware of that site and have issued previous warnings to those camping there.
“We’re playing ping-pong, except with people,” Martinez said.
By 9 a.m., city crews and sanitation workers began the task of clearing the site of trash, filling in trenches dug for rain diversion and extinguishing fire pits. Only one abandoned tarp tent was still awaiting to be torn down.
Among those most pleased to see the homeless camp cleaned up were Alfred Velasquez and Fernando Barragan, who live in single-family homes across the street.
Both said they and other neighbors have made frequent complaints to the city regarding fires and illegal drug activity. Barragan told me he can hardly walk his kids to the school bus stop around the corner without passing someone slumped on the sidewalk shooting up.
“It never used to be like this,” Velasquez said.
“It’s about time (the city) did something,” Barragan added.
Before the homeless set up camp in the vacant lot, Martinez and others tell me it was the place where Motel Drive prostitutes had their “johns” park their cars.
What social ill will take up residence next?