By Will Freeney | firstname.lastname@example.org
A gentleman much involved in the charitable work arena once said, “The poor you have with you always.” It is not recorded that he added any comments about sending them to jail or fining them. It seems he was definitely right about that permanence thing though.
As the first anniversary of Fresno’s passage of the Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act on August 17, 2017 approaches, it appears that there are, indeed, still homeless people in Fresno. Tarps and tents pop up individually instead of in clusters, and people sprawl in just their clothes or wrapped in a blanket in unused doorways or dumpster enclosures, under bushes or trees. Now the police are empowered to roust them, deprive them of their belongings, and take them to jail. Their alleged alternative is to bring offenders to a MAP (Multi-agency Access Point) for intake to housing, medical, and treatment services. However, MAP units are only open Monday through Friday during business hours. The likelihood of police arresting someone for “camping” on that schedule is minimal.
Shortly after the ordinance went into effect, the stretches of canal levee that had been populated were devoid of residents or any evidence of their presence – scraped clean right down to the dirt. Since then, the observable actions of police with regard to the homeless, as reported by the homeless as well, are to force them to pack up and move along rather than arrest and jail them. There are practical reasons for this – whether they are the rationale of the police or not – namely, more homeless than jail cells, temporary housing units, and beds.
Those who supported the passage of the ordinance, when the discussion was heard before the City Council, cited public defecation and urination as the health hazard to which its official title alludes. It seems that provision of portable toilets for public use would be a much more direct solution than paying police officers $50,000 per year to corral these defecators and urinators. If they are going to be told to move along, they will still have to do those things somewhere. When you have to go, you have to go. Why not give them somewhere to go? In the case of a natural disaster, its victims are provided with shelter, food, showers. Homelessness is a natural social disaster. It is a result of our public policy to date.
Homelessness represents a disaster and a socio-political fiasco. The presence of those among the ranks of the homeless with mental disorders can be traced to the closing of California’s mental health hospitals – augmented by the growing number of mental health cases created by substance abuse. If we want people off the street, then we should give them a place to go, not as a punishment or a deterrent but as a safe, secure interim home.
Regarding social impact, the Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act has actually been counterproductive. The presence of the homeless in public places – albeit one per place more often – has increased. The very businesses whose owners supported the ordinance with their complaints of the unsightly presence of the homeless in their proximity are more likely to find the homeless in their doorways, alleyways, parking lots, and landscaping now that they have been dispersed from the canal levees. In terms of its economic effect on the homeless, the associated $1000 fine for the infraction would only add to the distress of the distressed.
There are those who will say that homelessness is a “lifestyle choice.” Those who say that do not consider that you cannot acquire housing on the few hundred dollars per month that General Assistance provides, and that those dealing with mental health issues and/or active addiction are not capable of holding a fulltime job, or that keeping a fulltime job at minimum wage scarcely provides enough to feed and house oneself, even without any other adverse conditions.
What is required is a little compassion and a lot of conscious planning. The since-deleted tweet from the councilman who sponsored this ordinance, “Homeless GTFO,” will not do the job. Neither will his directive. Calling council members to advocate for rescission of the law is a start. Then the work of crafting a plan begins. Through either use of eminent domain or advantageous leasing, vacant properties could be acquired for homeless housing. Public toilets could be provided in strategic locations. Funding for adequate mental health and addiction treatment could be obtained. That little compassion could have exponential rewards. The gentleman quoted earlier was famous for it.