Ryan Jacobsen, CEO and executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, tells members of the Fresno City Council on Thursday of the problems caused by homeless people hanging out around his organization’s building. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
A marathon meeting of the Fresno City Council ended with members voting overwhelmingly to approve Councilman Steve Brandau’s proposal to ban camping in the city.
That vote came at the end of the four-hour meeting in which members of the public spoke passionately for and against the “Unlawful Camping” ordinance that had the backing of Mayor Lee Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and leaders of the Fresno Rescue Mission.
The meeting on the proposed ordinance was scheduled to begin late in the day, after the regular City Council meeting because officials anticipated a large turnout for the controversial agenda item, and they were right.
At least 110 people were in the council chambers at the start of the meeting at 4:10 p.m., and more filed in and out as it progressed.
For his part, Brandau said he developed the proposal in response to a “cry for help from Fresno residents and business owners” over the ill effects large numbers of homeless people are having on the city, including the problem of people camping out on sidewalks and other public areas, cooking and bathing outdoors and urinating and defecating in the open and on private property.
The ordinance bans camping and the establishment of group campsites, as well as prohibiting the use of public fountains for bathing.
While the maximum penalties for violators are up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, Brandau said he doesn’t anticipate the city ever collecting even a single dollar in fines, as violators largely would be destitute.
He noted that violators would be given the option of participating in a program in Fresno’s Multi-agency Access Program, which includes the Fresno Rescue Mission’s homeless shelter and Poverello House, where they could get a roof over their heads and be evaluated for services to get them off the streets, including temporary housing vouchers and mental health services.
“They and their belongings will be treated with dignity,” the councilman said.
“This is not going to be a sweep of the homeless,” added Dyer, who described the ordinance as a “tool in the toolbox” for police to help people who are obstinate and refuse to move on when officers ask them to vacate areas where they’re camping and refuse help.
“It is truly one of the challenging things we in the police department are dealing with today,” he said of dealing with complaints involving homeless people, which sometimes involve violence, trespassing, panhandling and homicides.
“But calls for service continue to rise. In fact, this last year we handled 26,000 calls for service involving people who are out there on the streets. That’s over 90 calls a day,” Dyer told the council members.
He said local merchants have indicated to him that this is a major concern, as “people are intimidating their customers, the aggressive panhandling, the refusal to leave, so it’s very real.”
Then came the public comment portion of the meeting, which started out with more than 40 people filling out cards to speak, but that number swelled to 63 as the meeting progressed.
Opponents of the ordinance — who described it as everything from disappointing to wrong minded to terroristic — seemed to outnumber the supporters.
Among those opponents was Stacy Williams of Fresno, who said, “This does nothing but criminalize the most vulnerable.”
Williams told the council she had spent four years on the streets, and questioned whether it was appropriate for the council to have “In God We Trust” on its chamber walls if it went forward with the ordinance.
“You cannot treat the people of this city like animals, like litter,” said Christine Springer of Fresno, who also said she had been homeless in the past.
And she told the council it was wrong to take such extreme and inappropriate action because a homeless person offended the sensibilities of somebody walking a dog.
“If they can’t camp when they have no place to go, it’s wrong. There needs to be another way.”
One person even likened Brandau’s proposal to using a sledgehammer to drive a nail in a wall to put up a picture.
But supporters of the camping ordinance gave their own impassioned arguments.
Carolyn Wood of Fresno has lived in the same neighborhood since 1967, and said she encounters the problem on walks with her dog.
“The last two years it has been horrendous. I have been approached by many asking for money, asking for food. I have been approached by people screaming and yelling at me to get away from their area. I pray that these people find a home somewhere, and this may be part of the answer,” she said of the ordinance.
Kathy Omachi of Reedley, a member of Fresno’s Chinatown Revitalization Organization, told the council members her groups supports the proposal.
“We feel, again, that it could be used as a tool, but part of what we are going to say … is that it is going to take the coordinated effort of all of you — the police and community organizations and advocates and the homeless themselves — to make this work.
She added that city officials can’t think this will solve the homeless problem here, “and we in Chinatown stand with you and continue to work together in a meaningful and passionate way.”
Ryan Jacobsen, CEO and executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said that in recent months, on a daily basis homeless people have gathered around his organization’s building in the 1200 block of West Hedges Avenue near Roeding Park, and after work hours they camp out under the building’s eaves.
“I am one of those businesses that the chief just referred to that is at the point that the Fresno PD just can’t help us. We have a massive mess over by my building that has basically been in progress about three months, and we see this (ordinance) as part of the toolbox for dealing with this issue.
“Secondly, I know this is not an issue that will go away. We will need to take additional steps,” Jacobsen said.
Brand noted during the meeting that he is planning to roll out other initiatives to address Fresno’s homeless problem later in the year, while Dyer said police also are preparing a new strategy to deal with and interact with the homeless.
At the suggestion of Councilman Luis Chavez, the council amended the proposed ordinance to include provisions that violators who initially refuse to leave or go to a MAPS facility and are jailed could choose later to go and get help, and convicted violators could agree to go in lieu of serving jail time.
The council members also agreed to issue a directive at a later date to the police department to provide a report on enforcement activity for the Unlawful Camping ordinance, and that directive will include the types of information the council wants.
Council members Garry Bredefeld and Oliver Baines didn’t attend Thursday’s meeting.
That left the five remaining members to vote on the proposal, with Paul Caprioglio telling the crowd beforehand that despite claims to the contrary by the opponents who spoke, “I can guarantee you we all have compassion. We want to give people a hand up, not necessarily a handout.”
For her part, Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria said she struggled with how to vote on the matter, adding that “we need to take a little more time and have a broader conversation” on the homeless issue.
“I think we can do better,” said the councilwoman, adding that the city needs more housing and programs to get people off the streets.
But she also said she expected the ordinance to pass, and it did, with her casting the only no vote against the yes votes by Brandau, Chavez, Caprioglio and Clint Olivier.