Desiree Martinez is founder of the We Are Not Invisible Foundation, which assists Fresno’s homeless. She spoke against a proposed ordinance at a Tuesday press conference. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau said an ordinance he plans to introduce on Thursday to prohibit homeless people from setting up tents and campsites in public areas essentially is a “tough love” approach to helping deal with homelessness in the city.
“It’s called the ‘Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act,’ and it is focused on a segment of our homeless population” who camp and pitch makeshift tents but also sleep, prepare food, bathe and sometimes defecate and urinate in public areas and around businesses, Brandau told reporters during a press conference this morning at Fresno City Hall.
On either side of him were photos illustrating the issue, including one of a shirtless man appearing to either be bathing or washing his clothes in a public fountain and another of a man sleeping in a doorway.
“My office gets pounded with calls from residents and business owners over homeless-related problems in northwest Fresno,” the District 2 councilman said. “It’s happening with all my colleagues, from downtown Fresno to the Tower District — all parts of our community.”
When asked by a reporter what prompted him to develop the ordinance, Brandau denied that it was related to a recent newspaper opinion piece claiming that the sight of so many homeless people pushing shopping carts with their possessions and panhandlers on Fresno’s streets played a role in the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain opting not to open a new restaurant here.
He did say, however, that the city’s homeless population is hurting Fresno’s efforts to draw new business here.
“We are never going to have the success that we want until we eliminate this problem for our business owners.”
Brandau said that based on estimates from Fresno police, about 600 of the estimated 1,700 to 1,800 homeless people in the city set up campsites in various areas, and Chief Jerry Dyer said that over the last couple of years they have become more resistant to police when asked collect their property and move on.
“Right now, we have 600 people holding a city of half a million people hostage. That’s whom I want to help. And that includes 35,000 [business] people who are getting pummeled — and their customers pummeled — every week and harassed by these 600 campers. And I hear from a lot of those businesses, and I’m responding to those businesses.” Brandau said.
In fact, he said part of the reason for developing the proposed ordinance was in response to a group of Chinatown business owners who recently took the city council to task for not doing enough to deal with the homeless problem.
As for his “tough love” comment, the councilman — flanked by Dyer, Mayor Lee Brand, City Attorney Douglas Sloan and Fresno Rescue Mission CEO Don Eskes — told reporters “It’s that 600 and the behaviors they make, and are choosing to live with, is what I’m addressing with my no camping policy.”
Dyer noted that the goal of the ordinance isn’t to arrest people, so his officers would offer to take violators to the city’s homeless shelter in lieu of jail, and there they could have a place to sleep at night, while case workers could direct them to programs to help them get off the streets and address the underlying causes of their homelessness.
Brandau said his ordinance, if passed by the city council, would eliminate the option people who camp out in public areas now have to not go to the shelter.
“It would be a tough love approach, forcing them to finally face that they need help and to go and get help.”
If violators of the ordinance are arrested, they could face up to six months in jail for a misdemeanor offense and up to $1,000 in fines, but Brand noted that time spent in jail actually would be much shorter.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to spend six months in jail or six hours in jail.”
When asked if the ordinance might stand up to a legal challenge, Sloan said it’s based on Sacramento ordinance that was upheld in court.
But Desiree Martinez accused city officials of falling short of their goals, speaking out during the press conference to ask what will be done to help homeless people once they leave the shelters and support programs.
The question didn’t receive an answer.
After the press conference, Martinez, founder of the We Are Not Invisible Foundation, which assists Fresno’s homeless, said that among the problems with the current system is that even if people get vouchers to pay for rental units to get off the streets, many don’t have money to pay for rental applications or have transportation to go look for places to live.
“So why are we going to criminalize them and give them a misdemeanor ticket for being back on the streets when they have already gone through the organizations they were told to go through to get help,” said Martinez, who spent a year-and-a-half living on the streets.
Eskes, who spoke to her after the press conference, said “if they find themselves back on the street, they can come back to us at any time, and we will work with them again to once again try to get them to the services they need.”
He went on to say he supports the proposed ordinance because it’s unsafe to live on the street, and is a risk to the health of the homeless and a quality-of-life issue for the rest of the city.
“And the last thing in the world we want to do is paint this as criminalizing [homelessness]. It’s getting people to the help that they need, realizing that a number of these folks — not all of them — either have mental health issues or they have substance addiction issues.”
Sean Segura, 28, who was homeless for about a year during which he lived at a makeshift campsite at Roeding Park, said of the proposed ordinance, “I think it’s not right. Some people just got no place else to live. Not all [homeless] people are bad people. Not all homeless people are on drugs.”
He went on to say that he believes it’s good to encourage homeless people to go to shelters, “but jail just for not having housing, that’s unacceptable.”
And considering the number of homeless people in the city — which Martinez said is probably closer to 5,000, there just isn’t enough room in the already “packed” Fresno Rescue Mission, Poverello House and other shelters in the city, Segura said.
But Eskes disputed that, saying “The facilities are here,” and the primary problem is getting homeless people to understand they need help.
“As long as I am mayor of Fresno, we will not surrender to the homeless problem. We will not accept unsanitary and unhealthy encampments. We will not allow aggressive panhandling and criminal acts to occur without a response or consequences,” Brand said.
“This is just the beginning. We will be adding more tools and more strategies in the coming weeks,” to address homelessness, said the mayor, who didn’t disclose what may be coming down the road.