Fresno Officials Dismantle Homeless Encampments

By Kirk Siegler

September 26, 2013

Any day now, Fresno plans to raze a large homeless encampment that's grown up near downtown. The poor, farm-dependent city in California's Central Valley has one of the highest per capita homeless populations in the country.

In recent weeks, city officials there have dismantled three other sprawling shantytowns. The moves have displaced hundreds of people and sparked controversy.

Underneath Highway 180

Fresno is one of the poorest places in America. One in 4 people here live below the poverty line, and the recession only made things worse.

Underneath Highway 180, in the shadow of a large old grain silo, there's a tent city. Dozens of makeshift dwellings with walls made of old tires, roofs of blue tarps. Worn mattresses lie precariously close to the train tracks and a dirty canal. The air is rank with garbage and urine.

"I don't have a last name," says a woman who goes by the name of Cinnamon. "I don't have an ID either."

Cinnamon also hasn't had any income since her boyfriend lost his job when Fresno's construction boom went bust. After months of couch-hopping, then moving from one abandoned place to the next, they settled here.

"It doesn't work, you can't do anything, your stuff's getting stolen all the time. At least, like this, you have somewhat of a home base," she said.

But now this home base — the encampment that covers a couple of acres — is slated for demolition. An eviction notice has just been posted on a telephone pole across the way.

"I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do," says Cinnamon. "We have over 58 people here, and they expect us all to move, all of the things we've had here for like two years, three years or more, in two weeks, less than two weeks."

Lawless Campgrounds

"It's not something as a city manager you want to do, you like to do, but it's something that had to be done," says City Manager Bruce Rudd, of two of the encampments that were just taken down. Their populations had swollen into the hundreds. They were lawless, and breeding grounds for local gangs.

"Sometime in the month of June is when we started seeing fires occurring, we had a stabbing, and then we had two gunmen walk into the encampment at night and murdered an individual," Rudd says.

In the weeks since, city workers armed with backhoes and big brooms have dismantled three sprawling homeless encampments.

For now, the plan is to use a $1 million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to start providing rental housing assistance for those who have been displaced. So far, the city has found housing for about 60 people.

But hundreds more are roaming the streets of a tough neighborhood south of downtown. People are just hanging out. Some tents have started to pop up again just around the corner from where one encampment stood. It's near a highway on-ramp.

"We were the last ones they razed," says Walter Jacobs. Here along F Street, Jacobs has pushed his shopping cart full of things to the gutter. It's parked next to a line of about 30 other carts, a line that grows by the day. He says the cops roust him at 6 a.m every day and tell him to leave.

"Yesterday it was rough; it was very, very hot. And if I went one block this way, they popped up and told me to go back that way. You can't sit here; you can't sit there; you can't go here," Jacobs says.

Alternative Solutions

Georgia Williams, of the group Fresno Homeless Advocates, says it's not realistic for the city to try to place troubled folks like Walter Jacobs into an apartment and expect them to just live a normal life right away.

"The appearance to me is that the city would like the homeless to disappear," she says. Williams wants to see the city set up "safe and legal" campgrounds, with trash removal, clean water and port-a-potties.

"We want to offer the city ways to think about homelessness, ways to deal with homelessness, that are something other than what they have been doing for the last 10 years or so in Fresno," she says.

The only thing most everyone can agree on is that the encampments have to go. Even many people who lived in them said they didn't feel safe there. Yet city leaders like Bruce Rudd are cold to the idea of setting up a more permanent campground.

"Nor does anyone want to answer the questions, what do we do with the individuals who don't want to comply with whatever rules that are established? Now what?" says Rudd, throwing up his hands in defeat.

"This is a city that has no cash reserves," Rudd says. "This is a city that's trying to stay out of bankruptcy."

It's also a city where there's no sign that the homeless population will decline anytime soon.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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