Kindness, Not Jail. Empathy, Not Fines.

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

“Humanize them.” Carrying over the noise of Fresno City Council’s recent passing of the camping-ban ordinance, this mantra has quickly become the unifying voice against the city’s decision to, for lack of a better word, criminalize the homeless.

On August 17, 2017, in a 4-1 vote, the City Council declared tents, lean-tos, and general camping on public or private property within Fresno City limits illegal. Those caught in violation will have the option to be escorted to MAP Point – Multi-Agency Access Program based at the Poverello House – for housing, health, rehabilitation, etc. otherwise that individual faces jail time of up to 6 months or receives a $1,000 fine. The ordinance went into effect on September 30, 2017.

On the surface, the ordinance appears to be that built from good intentions, urging those on the street to seek help as an alternative to being charged with the misdemeanor crime. It also heavily implies that there are large numbers of homeless individuals who either aren’t aware of these services or refuse to utilize them, that they prefer life on the streets and make a choice to remain homeless. This ordinance has been described as a method of “tough love” by Don Eskes, CEO of the Fresno Rescue Mission, and the ordinance’s initial sponsor, Councilman Steve Brandau. However, despite its facile good intentions, the law and its proponents lack depth and foresight.

“There are people out there, who have had a [housing voucher] for 3 months, still sleeping on the streets or in the park, waiting for a home,” says Desiree Martinez – Founder of the non-profit organization, We Are Not Invisible Foundation dba Homeless In Fresno – in response to the ordinance. Martinez’s sentiments echo that of other organizations who are also struggling with a lack of resources. The homeless population outnumbers that of available beds in local shelters.

In the August 17 City Council meeting, numerous Fresno residents called to question the efficiency of the ordinance. Fresno Madera Continuum of Care Vice Chair, Jody Ketcheside, stated, “There are some misconceptions about available shelters in our community. We do have one large shelter that people can stay in for up to 30 days. Once they’ve timed out at 30 days, they cannot return for another year. Our MAP Point clients that are currently on the list for housing, once they’ve stayed in the shelter for 30 days, they have to go back to the streets.”

It begs an earnest question that supporters of the ordinance need to consider. What are the homeless supposed to do if they’ve gone through the services, assigned to a caseworker, have a housing voucher in hand – and they are currently in limbo as they wait for a home to become available – but no shelter has space for them? What are they to do then, where are they supposed to go, if not the streets? And it’s a question that no member of City Council or City Officials has yet to provide an answer.

“When people say ‘you’re homeless because you want to be’ that sends rage through them. No one truly wants to be homeless. The addicts, the alcoholics, even they want to be inside of a house hiding as they do drugs or drink. They don’t want to be out in public letting everyone know their business,” shares Martinez of the continuing misunderstanding that homelessness is, for some, a choice.

“The ordinance is [going to harm] a lot more people. There’s going to be a lot more victims, there are a lot of rapes that go down out there,” Martinez’s voice grows soft as she continues at this point. “There are a lot of women out here, and they’re the ones saying ‘if you take away my tent I will be breaking in [somewhere], I’m not going to [be without] any protection over me all night long.”

Living on the streets is not part of a counter-culture movement or a vacation from responsibility; the streets are a dangerous place. Tents and impromptu shelters provide protection, however minimal it may seem, from not only the elements but also from people. According to Martinez, accounts of assault are common as victims fight off assailants who will attack at the sound of a tent zipper coming undone. The level of attacks is also the reason why so many dogs live amongst the homeless.

But it’s not just attacks from others within the homeless community that they have to worry about; it’s also the attacks from those on the outside.

“They’ve had rocks thrown at them, tire irons, and even cinder blocks – kids were driving by throwing cinder blocks onto tents – and the tents have, at times, protected them,” says Martinez.

Desiree Martinez holds her ground at the Sept 29 protest of the anti-camping ordinance held at Fresno City Hall – photo credit: Richard D Iyall

The unsheltered population is a marginalized group where a significant disparity persists in the understanding between those living on the street and everyone else. Many believe that the path to truly solving the issue of homelessness begins with compassion, empathy, and acknowledgment, not with criminalization.

Desiree Martinez started Homeless in Fresno for the sole purpose of bridging the gap of communication between the fortunate and less fortunate. The focus centered around a media project that documented life in the streets of Fresno through the photography and video medium. However, it was not through the lens of a camera that sparked her passion in advocating for the homeless, but the fact that she knows, first-hand, what it’s like to be homeless.

“I know what it’s like to be hungry. I know what it feels like to be homeless. I know what it feels like to see people react when they find out you’re homeless,” she shares. “And it’s always one of 2 reactions, overwhelming pity or blame, ‘you chose it, you deserve to be homeless.”

At the mere mention of the word ‘homeless,’ a gap seems to manifest and widen with every passing moment between the sheltered and unsheltered. Recall, if you can, the last time you encountered a homeless person, did you talk to them? Did you say hello? Or did you walk past them without a glance?

“People don’t know that their words and expressions are like daggers. They notice when you walk by without looking at them and ignoring them,” she continues.

Through her organization, Martinez focuses on the needs and issues of the street homeless. Down in the trenches, she works face to face with the less fortunate, often without any breaks or days off, implementing any number of her six projects at one time. At its core, Martinez built these projects around the immediate needs of the community, but they also provide an opportunity for volunteers to work in close collaboration and more personally with the street homeless.

HOMELESS IN FRESNO PROJECTS

Project H2O

April to September

At the inception of her media project, Martinez began observing that there was a severe lack of available water and access to water. “[There was a] lack of fountains, lack of restaurants and businesses willing to give out water. Everyone was dying of thirst so I started Project H2O]” she states.

It’s a simple necessity that often goes unnoticed. Aside from needing the water to drink, it’s also used for bathing, washing clothes, cooking, and also to keep their animals hydrated.

During the hottest months of the year, when temperatures reach 110 degrees, water is crucial. Without access to cooling centers or an air-conditioned building, those living on the streets are at an increased risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Martinez adapted the project to hand out frozen water bottles because of this.

Water is needed all year round, but larger quantities are also necessary during the project’s current months (April – September). Volunteers are also needed to help freeze the bottles and disperse them out to the community.

Hoodies for the Homies

September to February

“I came up with Hoodies for the Homies because last year I did a coat drive and I got hundreds and hundreds of coats… I had been blessed by the community so much. But I came to find out that we were receiving a lot of parkas, wool blazers… just really expensive jacket wear,” says Martinez.

The most pressing issue surrounding these types of donations were regarding the durability of the coat through the rainy weather. As it rains, the coats become wet, and as the homeless do not have access to laundry mats to dry their clothes, they stay wet. Often, if a person attempts to hang their clothes to dry, they’re taken down by the police, and over time, the wet clothes will begin to smell, and the homeless have no choice but to throw them away. Martinez was plowing right through the donations which caused her to seek out a better method.

Hooded sweatshirts became the answer due to their flexibility and comfort. Martinez took it a step further and decided to include a poncho with every hoodie to help keep it dry.

Donations of ponchos are always welcome, but Martinez wants people to bear in mind that the ponchos from places like the Dollar Tree only last through a single rain.

Project Share the Warmth

October to April

Centering around everything warm, the object of this project includes giving out soups, hot cocoa, hot coffee, hot tea, scarves, mittens, hats, blankets, hand warmers, socks, etc.

“I can’t have enough socks. They go through socks every single day because of the rain. [Socks are] also multipurpose, they’ll string them together and make scarves, cut holes in them and make gloves, or turn them into a sweater for their Chihuahua,” says Martinez.

Donations that help keep the homeless warm and dry are welcome. Wool blankets are encouraged as they are more water repellent than most blankets.

Martinez also spends this time speaking at elementary schools and Fresno City College to raise awareness by educating the public about hypothermia and ways to keep warm

Potluck in the Park

Every Month on the 3rd Saturday

This project allows members of the community to interact with and get to know some homeless individuals. It invites anyone and everyone to bring a dish, sponsor meals or to volunteer on the serving line. However, this potluck has specific restrictions for the person or business who decides to participate.

Each volunteer is required to not only prepare the food they’re donating but also to package and serve it themselves. As this is a community event that gives access for the homeless to a warm, home-cooked style meal with more substantial nutrition, but it’s also a learning experience that teaches people how to communicate with the less fortunate.

“We talk to strangers, hold open doors for people we’ve never met, but we’re afraid to talk to someone who’s poor? I’ll have six people on the serving table, and I tell them to make sure they ask everyone their name and how their day’s been going. When they take a break to eat, they are to sit down and eat next to a homeless individual and get to know them,” explains Martinez.

Businesses who have participated in the past include Deli Delicious, Smokin’ Burrito food truck, and WTF food truck.

Hygiene Project

All Year Round

“I’ve been thinking of calling it Project Dignity,” shares Martinez.

Hygiene kits include toothpaste, deodorant, toilet paper, cotton swabs, feminine products, and other items useable without access to water such as wet wipes and dry shampoo. It’s important to remember that water, even if accessible, is extremely limited.

The project also raises awareness of not only what to give but what not to give. Mouthwash and hand sanitizer contain alcohol; the alcoholics will drink it and become sick.

Earplugs are also included in the kits to address a much more alarming issue.

“They sleep on the ground and the amount of bugs that out in the winter time… We have a lot of people out there who are pulling roaches and bugs out of their ears,” explains Martinez.

Project Street Clean

All Year Round

This unique project puts the homeless to work in exchange for food. More specifically, Martinez hands out trash bags to homeless volunteers and instructs them to pick up the trash in parks and community areas. Once the bags are full, they turn them into Martinez who hands back a meal.

“I’ve been doing this for almost two years, helping them, but I needed to start holding them accountable. So I started showing up saying ‘no one’s getting any free food anymore, you’re going to have to work for it,’” Martinez says.

It’s an effort to prove to the rest of the community that there are those who are willing to work and not everyone who is homeless deserves the label of criminal, dirty, or mentally ill.

Parks and Recreation at Roeding Park have begun working with Martinez by disposing of the collected trash.

Get Involved

Desiree Martinez has found her calling in dedicating her life’s work to helping the street homeless, working nearly 365 days a year directly with the community. And even though many of us are unable to give of ourselves, in the same way, we can still be part of the solution in small but meaningful doses.

Homeless in Fresno is a staff of one as Martinez is the organization’s only full-time staff member, so it goes without saying that volunteers are not only welcome but encouraged. Donations in the form of supplies or monetary are also a big help.

Many other local organizations are in the same boat as Martinez, as they struggle to keep up with the needs of the homeless community. Find a shelter or group near you that aligns with your available contribution levels.

And no matter your situation, there is one thing that we can all give that costs absolutely nothing: compassion.

The homeless issue is a complex one filled with many factors. There are some who suffer from mental illness and lack access to treatment, others who are afflicted with addiction and alcoholism, and plenty of those who only fell on hard times without a support system to catch them. If we, as a community, hope ever to resolve this problem we must begin with kindness, remembering that these individuals are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. They are people, our people.

For more information about Homeless in Fresno, its projects and how to volunteer or donate, visit www.wanif.org

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