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As Homeless Camps Are Dismantled, Street Pastor Soldiers On

On Monday morning, Pastor Ray Polk comforted a man who was packing up everything he owned.

“You alright?” Polk asked. As the man expressed his pain and frustration, Polk replied, “I know, I know, I know, we got to keep going forward.”

Along H Street in Downtown Fresno, the homeless were stuffing their possessions into plastic bags and shopping carts, as city workers bulldozed and raked the debris left behind.

Yesterday, City of Fresno workers dismantled the third homeless encampment in three weeks. Overall, the effort has displaced a total of about 250 people.

It’s part of the city’s efforts to rid Fresno of permanent homeless camps, which officials say are a health and safety threat. They say the goal is to connect people with housing and services.

But Polk said he wouldn’t take down the street church he constructed in the camp.

“They told me I would have to dismantle it myself and if not, they will bulldoze it down,” he said. “So I told them I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t defy God like that, and tear down something that God had me put up.”

The church is made of white slats of wood. Polk has covered them in proverbs and Bible verses. It’s covered with a blue tarp, and contains about 10 white, plastic chairs. 

"I would not upon any circumstances take that down" - Pastor Ray Polk

“They make the decision,” he said of city officials. “I would not upon any circumstances take that down.”

He also ran a food distribution from the church. Next to it, he constructed a memorial to the homeless who have died. There are flowers next to each makeshift headstone.

“I figure, I’d take a piece of wood, paint it white, put their names on it, at least they can come and pay tribute to a friend or loved one, even if it’s just once a year on Memorial Day,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, city spokesman Michael Lukens said the memorial could remain, but that the church would be put into storage.

It’s not the first time that Polk, and the homeless he serves, have been displaced. But this time, Lukens says, they city has formed a task force to ensure that the camps don’t re-emerge.

“We’re making every effort, certainly more than we have in the past, to make sure we’re on top of making sure structures don’t come back up and encampments don’t return,” Lukens says.

He says the city is working with local agencies, like the Housing Authority, to find people housing.

But 28-year-old Lena Richardson has no idea where she’ll live now. She had lived in the camp for six months. Yesterday, she stood on the side of the road with her dog, Princess.

A shopping cart contained her belongings:  “My tent, my blankets, my batteries, my solar panels so I can have electricity, that’s about it.”

She said she felt puzzled, confused, and sick. 

"What if they woke up the next day and they don't know where they're going?" - Lena Richardson

“What if they woke up the next day and then don’t know where they’re going?” she asked. “That’s depressing.”

That’s where Pastor Polk comes in. He says he’ll still be there to provide spiritual support to the homeless.

His role he said, is “comforting my brothers and sisters, hugging and embracing them while they cry, and try to uplift their spirits like I always have done, and try to continue to give hope where hopelessness has filled.”

Lukens says the city might demolish one more camp in the next 30 days.

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