//The Homeless Problem

The Homeless Problem

The Smiley Synopsis Spotlight on City of Fresno’s proposed ordinance 14-813

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

There’s been an awful lot of buzz about last month’s surprise proposed Fresno city ordinance section 14-813 of the municipal code, called the Vehicular Transfer Ordinance for short.  Although some may say that this ordinance is only a traffic safety issue, the apparent truth is that it is about the homeless in our community.  But, what emerged unexpectedly from this proposition, however, is even more surprising.  The public saw this proposed ordinance as an infringement upon their very own personal freedom to be generous, something that would be outlawed in the city of Fresno if passed.  The public didn’t just see this debacle as an attack on the street poor but as a personal attack on themselves.  How dare the city tell us it is wrong to help those in need!  How dare it criminalize our goodwill and charity!

The good news: strong public opposition derailed section 14-813 and kicked its ass – for now.  And you can thank your fellow Fresnans for coming out in force at City Hall in the middle of a Thursday afternoon to patiently say hell no to such a misguided, misinformed, and caustic law in our community.  Seriously.

But, why do I mention “the homeless problem” for a proposed bill that has no explicit mention of this wording in its draft?  I’ll tell you why.

I‘m new to Fresno, originally from southern California, and so as a new Fresnan with a fresh set of eyes, I’ve seen firsthand the severe problem of homelessness on the streets – okay – but I’ve also seen generosity and goodwill for the homeless on these very same streets. In fact, what I’ve learned up til now about living in Fresno is that the typical Fresnan is a generous soul who empathizes with homeless street panhandlers enough to donate a few bucks, or to give out food items or water bottles to people in need – something that this new proposed bill calls an “unlawful transfer.”  Unlawful transfer!  Suddenly now, out of nowhere, personal charity is under attack and the freedom of generosity is under fire in Fresno – in the very city which needs it the most.

It makes us feel good when we help each other because we know that we ourselves could one day need an extra hand.  Plus, as a person of faith, helping one another is a tangible expression of that faith.  It is the embodiment of love.  And Fresnans showed their extra hands of love in full force at that March 21st City Council meeting as we vehemently opposed this proposed criminalization of kindness.  The societal emotions that this proposed new law evoked in the city of Fresno at this public meeting was outstanding and at the same time reverberated like a clanging bong.  This is what happens when love is attacked.  Dozens upon dozens of community residents angrily came to City Hall to express their disdain for this apparent sneaky attack on the homeless as well as to show their support for their fundamental American freedom of personal generosity.  If passed, this horrible ordinance would have imposed fines for any driver who “gives or relinquishes” “any item of property to a pedestrian” “within 200 yards of a signalized intersection.”  What a cruel edict from a city which has “In God We Trust” permanently spectacled in its City Hall meeting chambers!  How can I trust in God but not help those in need?  I’m confused.

And I’m not the only one.  This outrage was felt way beyond the Fresno borders and caught the attention of greater California.  “Shameful.”  “Disgusting.”  These are only a few of the sentiments I heard while sitting in the lobby waiting to be allowed in the chambers for the meeting to begin.  I met an older woman, Irene, from San Luis Obispo, who was so completely flabbergasted and disturbed with the audacity of such a heartless City Council to propose such a heartless law, that she made sure to make the long trek across the valley just to be certain to have her voice heard at the meeting. “Shame on Fresno,” she kept telling me.  And that’s exactly what she told the council as she addressed them during her public comment, too.  Irene resonates with the hardship and plight of the homeless and explained how her city was taking proactive steps to help their homeless while Fresno was taking reactive measures to criminalize them and the people who want to help them.  “There’s something about helping ‘the least of these,’”she shared with contagious emotion in her voice.  And, she’s not alone – there are countless more across the city and state who see a reflection of their own humanity in the homeless and who feel the special radiance of brotherly love and goodwill in every “unlawful transfer” that happens.  Hey, what can we say – if “unlawful transfers” are wrong here in Fresno, then we don’t ever want to be right.

Councilmembers Brandau (District 2), Chavez (District 5), and Caprioglio (District 4) were the sponsors of this stupid law, and they stressed how they personally have seen or heard about “close calls” of vehicular accidents almost caused by street-side donations.

Towards the end of the public comment time, I stepped forward and addressed the councilmembers at the podium about the crucial lack of traffic data to support their theory of street-side donation traffic accidents – I told them that their reasoning for passing a law to make “unlawful transfers” even a thing is probably based on some faulty availability heuristic at best.  In fact, just a few moments before, Fresno PD’s Chief Dyer addressed the council and told them that, not only was there no data to support the assertion that “unlawful transfers” are a citywide traffic safety concern, but that even if the proposed ordinance were passed, the reality is that it wouldn’t really be enforced at all – but not only that, Chief also warned that the negative externalities associated with such an ordinance could potentially damage the relationship between the community and the police.  And he’s right.  I don’t know about you, but if I suddenly became an outlaw for giving a hungry, homeless guy a burger or a bottle of water, or for providing a few bucks to a guy on the street corner just trying to raise money for his young daughter’s funeral, I’m not going to  trust a cop.  I’m going to be too worried about a crazy undercover homeless sting.

Turns out that “unlawful transfers” aren’t even unlawful at all and the homeless are not the problem.  Instead, what is unlawful is a system designed to criminalize the poor and needy at their lowest.  What is the problem here in Fresno is a system that seeks to punish goodhearted, generous residents who only want to help out ‚“the least of these.” It’s a good thing that this shamefully embarrassing law was killed.

This is not who we are.