//The Pandhandler Problem

The Pandhandler Problem

The Smiley Synopsis Spotlight on City of Fresno’s “Help Us, Help Fresno” Initiative

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

The problem in Fresno is so out of control, so crucial that urgent action must be taken now!  

At least, that’s what Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld would want you to believe about the panhandler presence in his district.  Driven by endless complaints from his constituents “demanding” that something finally be done about it now, Bredefeld proudly sponsored Resolution “Help Us, Help Fresno” at April 11th’s City Council meeting alongside cosponsoring Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Luis Chavez, of poorer Districts 3 and 5, respectively.

Panhandlers apparently stick out like a sore thumb in Councilmember Bredefeld’s District 6, and he is adamant about doing something about it.  “Giving them money keeps them where they’re at,” he said at the afternoon meeting.  And, clearly, that’s not where this councilmember wants them.  Bredefeld is convinced “that when you donate and give in a charitable way to people who are panhandling – the bottom line is it doesn’t help them.”  So, then, what’s Councilmember Bredefeld’s bottom line solution?

A sign.

No, not a “sign” from God (which, actually, coming from the same guy who proposed the “In God We Trust” declaration that is now prominently displayed in the Council Chambers, such a religious reference wouldn’t be too surprising) – but, an actual sign.  And not a cheap one either.  The total cost of the signage to be placed all over the city is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $20,000.  The proposed metallic, official-looking signs would say something to the effect of: “Help Us, Help Fresno.  Contribute To The Solution.  Say No To Panhandling.  Give To Local Charities.”  And, right in the middle of it would be the beautiful encircled image of two human hands meeting at the nexus of a compassionate coin exchange – but with an ugly red line drawn diagonally straight through it.  Needless to say, not everyone felt good about Councilmember Bredefeld’s proposal.

The total cost of the signage is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $20,000.

As I was sitting in the audience, feeling the anger from the community and the desperation from the homeless who expressed their opposition to the signs, I wondered why Councilmember Bredefeld remained numb to their pleas.  Despite how the community or even how his own colleagues disagreed with him about the signs, he still maintained that his signs were “positive signs, with a positive message, and a positive solution” – in the face of all of the negativity at the meeting, I couldn’t believe that he actually said that “this can’t get any more positive.”

Councilmember Bredefeld kept referring to a short video of “professionals” that was played at the beginning of the discussion that fully supported his idea that “giving to panhandlers just keeps those panhandlers in the same place…it keeps them on the street…it doesn’t help them at all.” The video highlighted “professional” Pastor Rob Cravy, COO of Fresno Rescue Mission, who shares Councilmember Bredefeld’s conviction.  He explained in the video that “every time we hand out money…the reality is that we are keeping them homeless.”  With its phone number conspicuously printed on every single sign, Pastor Cravy’s Rescue Mission would be the primary organization recommended to donators.

Of course, the community overwhelming disagreed.

Jordan Fitzpatrick, a young blind District 3 community member with a black service dog, approached the podium to fervently address the council – especially Councilmember Arias.

“I’m extremely disappointed with your proposal…Use the money to help the homeless instead of making signs.  They need shelter…”  And, as Jordan struggled to continue to find the right words, a flurry of emotions emerged.  “Sorry, I’m very pissed off right now – this money can be used in much more effective ways than putting useless signs around our city that do nothing to help the homeless – If you don’t want homeless people, then actually do something to help them not be homeless!” he scolded the cosponsors.

Jordan explained how there are currently no single residential homeless shelters that accept transgender people here in Fresno and relayed how lesbian, gay, and bisexual people also do not feel welcome at most shelters in town – especially at the Fresno Rescue Mission – a place some have called a discriminatory religious organization.

And the Rescue Mission is not shy about its religious mission, either.  On its website, it says: “The Fresno Rescue Mission endeavors to glorify God by meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the least…” and that it is “Christ-focused.”  It’s website boldly affirms: “That’s what we’re all about here at the Fresno Rescue Mission.”

So, as Jordan put it, this initiative and these expensive signs are nothing more than “free publicity for the Fresno Rescue Mission – with their number on it.”

Mike Rhodes, another community member who addressed the council was also adamantly opposed to the initiative: “I oppose the proposed purchase of signs to discourage helping the homeless in their struggle to survive…to try and starve homeless people in submission…what a heartless proposal.”

Councilmember Bredefeld indeed seemed heartless when he said in response to the criticism that “once we have people not giving money to panhandlers on street corners, and that money dries up – they will be forced to seek help.  They’ll be forced to seek services…”  To Bredefeld, of course, the panhandler problem has a simple solution – just ignore panhandlers when you see them and let his sign do the rest.

I stepped up to the podium and shared a Bible verse found in Proverbs 14: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker.”  I had hoped it would resonate with Councilmember Bredefeld.

But, the most provocative message of the meeting came from community member Dez Martinez.  For over 3 minutes, she simply read the names of homeless panhandlers who have recently died on the streets: “Lisa Oliveras, aged 50; Frank De Rosa, aged 65; Carlos Rodriguez, aged 64…”  With emotion in her voice, she pleaded with the council to help homeless panhandlers instead of criminalizing or ostracizing them.

In Fresno, the problem is not the panhandler.  Instead, the real problem is contempt for what he or she represents…

*See the excitement yourself live online for free next City Council Meeting at https://CMAC.tv/gov and let’s get involved!