By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s 7 am. A new day starts at Project Safe Camp, a small, fence-lined homeless camp located beneath the freeway 41 overpass in downtown Fresno.
“If I’m up, you’re gonna be up too!” jokes Dez Martinez as she makes the rounds between the tents, waking the occupants inside.
Rose, the camp’s cook, prepares breakfast for the residents, and slowly but surely, everyone files out to get a bite to eat and start the day’s workload.
“Everyone has a job here,” Dez explains. “Every resident has a stake in this camp. There are no free rides.”
For the small group of residents who call Project Safe Camp home, a list of chores is a payment gladly made in exchange for a clean, safe place to set up their tents. Away from the crime, drugs, and violence that plagues the rest of the downtown area.
“Santa Clara St. is basically lawless. The police don’t go there. The drug use is out of control. It’s violent and scary. 2-3 people a week are killed there, and you won’t even hear about it. It just doesn’t make the news,” Dez laments.
Dez estimates about 70-100 homeless people die in Fresno every year. These statistics, much like the community itself, are largely ignored by the news media.
“[Councilman Garry] Bredefeld got a 4 ½ acre land donation to build a $20 million dog park. But they haven’t committed a single dollar to help the city’s homeless population,” Dez shares. “It’s just frustrating and honestly really sad that the City cares more about giving dogs a place to play than giving human beings a safe space to live.”
It was this frustration with the lack of assistance from the city that ultimately motivated Dez to start Project Safe Camp. There is currently only one place in Fresno that provides shelter for homeless men, women, and families, and that’s the Fresno Rescue Mission. At one time, they had 200 beds available for people in need of transitional shelter. At the same time, they waited for permanent housing or admission to rehab or other live-in programs. That number has dwindled to around 60 beds today. To make matters worse, residents can only stay for 30 days and must wait 90 days before returning.
“It’s just a mess, because yes, there is M.A.P. (the multi-agency program) that provides housing placement and all the services to get people off the streets if they want to be. But, the waiting list for housing is so long, it takes months to get someone placed. And what are they supposed to do in the meantime? Where are they supposed to go?” Dez asks.
Most of the homeless people Dez meets doing outreach want to get off the streets. They want to find a job and get their lives back on track. Unfortunately, the city’s homeless policy has become the biggest obstacle to making that happen. In 2017, a new ordinance passed that banned homeless camps in the city. The camps that used to line the streets in downtown were pushed out towards highway 99. The only exception being Santa Clara St., which quickly became the most violent and dangerous street in the city.
“The City told the homeless, ‘you can’t be here anymore, go out by the 99 and camp there,” Dez explains. “But, at the same time, they were telling CalTrans’ Hey, you need to do something about all these homeless people along the highway’, so it’s like, what’s really going on here?”
Dez found herself encountering more and more people with nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help. “People were scared to be on the streets downtown. It’s terrible here. But where else could they go?”
Dez describes the current situation in downtown Fresno as a living hell for the homeless there. Stories of people being dragged out of their tents, beaten, and robbed. Women being raped and forced into prostitution. And the constant presence of drugs. Those who found themselves on the streets downtown would be lucky to survive for a month, let alone the several months it could take to find permanent housing. It was out of a desperate need to find some kind of solution that Project Safe Camp was born. Dez secured a small vacant lot behind BD Auto on Broadway street.
Along with the group of soon-to-be residents, she went to work cleaning the lot, leveling the ground, and setting up the facilities. Since then, the camp has become an example of how homeless camps can and should operate. The residents are all responsible for cleaning and maintaining their respective tents and the grounds as well. Chores are delegated and rotated. Bathroom facilities are cleaned and sanitized after every use. COVID-19 is taken very seriously here. The camp had its first confirmed case a little over a week earlier, and they have been under self-quarantine ever since. Residents who leave the camp must provide a negative test result before they can return. Everyone coming into the camp to drop off donations or visit a resident must have their temperatures taken. And social distancing is strictly enforced at all times.
“COVID has been devastating to the homeless community,” Dez sighs. “Nobody’s talking about it, but it’s bad. Really bad.”
Lack of sanitation, lack of access to medical care, and a lack of testing for the homeless community have created a perfect storm for COVID to flourish. To make matters worse, the data on COVID infection rates in the homeless community is allegedly being kept under wraps by the City.
“We can’t even get any count on just how many people in the homeless community have COVID, because the city won’t make those numbers public,” Dez says.
However, as Dez explains, that just further proves why camps like hers are necessary. Despite the impact of COVID on the rest of the downtown homeless population, Project Safe Camp has only had one confirmed case since opening. The ability to provide a clean, secure, and self-contained homeless encampment has been crucial to avoiding an outbreak.
More than just demonstrating success against pandemic conditions, Project Safe Camp is also a haven from drugs, violence, and crime. “Our residents feel safe here. They know that they can leave their stuff here and go to the store, and it will still be here when they get back. Our female residents can go to sleep without worrying about someone forcing their way into their tents and raping them. Nobody should ever have to worry about that.”
Many politicians and homeless advocates have maintained that building more shelters like those found at the Rescue Mission is the best way to address the state’s homeless crisis. Dez disagrees.
“Building more shelters is really just a band-aid,” She explains. “It’s a revolving door. These shelters suffer due to poor management and red tape.”
Indeed, government bureaucracy has a history of shooting itself in the foot when it comes to providing real solutions to the homeless problem.
“What good does it do to build a 500-bed shelter when you still have things like the 90-day rule in place?” Dez asks, referring to the City ordinance that prohibits someone from re-applying for a shelter bed for 90 days after leaving for any reason, including simply timing out their stay.
The policy resulted in many homeless individuals and families who initially came to the shelter searching for permanent housing, put back out on the streets with nowhere to go. And also, no reliable way for M.A.P. to contact them when housing finally becomes available. The camping ban has only exacerbated this issue. While intended to address the crime and drug use rampant in the makeshift homeless camps, the ban has caused most of the homeless to build camps along the highway – on state property. These camps cause trash to spill onto the roadways. And brush fires from campsites are becoming a frequent occurrence. With no shelter options available, and no safe transitional alternatives in place, the system fails the very people it’s designed to help.
Dez believes that the solution isn’t in more costly, inadequate, short-term band-aids. The homeless need safe, organized, extended-stay facilities where they can have a stable place to stay until they can be placed in permanent housing. That’s the message Dez hopes to send to the City Council with Project Safe Camp. A properly-managed campsite with rules, structure, and personally invested residents to maintain the space is a low-cost, long-term solution to the homeless problem.
So far, the community response to the camp has been overwhelmingly positive. Some local businesses were apprehensive at first, but once they saw how clean and well-maintained the camp was, their trepidation turned to praise.
“We have a great relationship with the local businessess,” Dez beams. “They look at what we’re doing here, and they see a way for the homeless to share space with them that doesn’t create an eyesore or scare away business. Camps like this can work if they’re just managed right.”
Dez wants to establish more safe campsites in other areas of Fresno’s city and county areas with large homeless populations. She admits that a problem with their current location is that many homeless people in other parts of the city are too afraid to relocate. Fears of the crime, violence, and proliferation of drugs in the downtown area stop them from making the camp journey. She’s currently reaching out to businesses, developers, and the city to obtain land space in North and East Fresno to create more safe camps. Dez is optimistic that businesses in other impacted areas of Fresno will see her camp’s positive results and will feel inspired to help establish camps in their areas.
In the meantime, Dez continues to put in her regular 17-hour days, giving 150% to making Project Safe Camp the model for a community-driven solution to the homeless problem. When asked what their needs are and how others can help, her reply is modest and straightforward.
“We need monitors. People willing to come watch the gate, handle donations, and just help keep the wheels turning.”
Currently, Project Safe Camp is essentially a labor of love. There’s no grant money or funds from the City to hire staff. Everyone working there is a volunteer. They rely entirely on donations for their needs. At the moment, their most pressing needs are ice and large igloo coolers. As fall and the rainy season approaches, they are also working to gather large, sturdy canopies to protect the tents from the elements. They also need blankets, pillows, and heaters.
“We’re making this work. Every day we prove to the community that we don’t need to spend a ton of money and build a bunch of expensive shelters to solve the homeless problem. All we need are safe spaces where people can set up camp without worrying about being harassed, attacked, robbed, ran off, or arrested. These are good people. They don’t want to stay out here forever. They just want a real chance to get back on their feet. That’s what we’re providing here. The results are speaking for themselves.”
To learn more about Project Safe Camp, volunteer your time, or donate money or resources, visit the Homeless in Fresno Facebook page, the We Are Not Invisible Fresno website, www.wanif.org, or on IG @wearenotinvisible1.