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Fourth Fresno Homeless Camp, Considered A 'Neighborhood' By Residents, Is Razed

 Cinnamon has lived in a make-shift structure near the grain silos, west of Palm Avenue and H Street, for more than two years. She says the homeless encampment there is different from others that have cropped up in downtown Fresno.

“We’re not a camp, we’re a neighborhood, a family,” she said. “We all look out for each other.”

The encampment has rules. For example, the residents decide – together – if a new person could move in.

“We’re not supposed to do anything that intrudes on your neighbor,” she said. “We’re not supposed to take from your neighbor. When it comes to anything that affects each other, we’re all supposed to agree on it.”

This morning, Cinnamon and other residents agreed on something else: Despite the city’s order to clear the homeless encampment, they didn’t want to leave. They also didn’t have a choice.

Over the last two months, City of Fresno employees have dismantled three homeless encampments in downtown Fresno. This would be the fourth to go.

Tears streamed down Cinnamon’s face as she wondered aloud how she’d pack up all her belongings, or where she’d go. A friend handed her a mug of coffee that had been cooked over a small fire. 

"They call us homeless - it's true, we have less of a home, by their standards - but this is a home" - Cinnamon

“It’s not a clean-up, it’s a lock out,” she said. “They call us homeless – it’s true, we have less of a home, by their standards, but this is a home, this is where I rest my head, this is where I kept my food, this is where I was safe, and I had a sanctuary, at least for a moment.”

Across the railroad tracks, city workers began bulldozing the remnants of a nearby encampment.

“We’ve certainly done enough of these now,” said city spokesman Michael Lukens. “We are doing it by the book, we are doing it the way we are supposed to. We’re going in, we’re packing belongings, if people want to keep them, we're going to document them, we’re storing them as we’re required to do, we’re trying to do everything we can to work with these folks, and we need to take the illegal structures down.”

He stressed that the goal of this clean-up, and past ones, is to rid the city of camp structures, which are considered to be public health and safety threats.

“We’re aware that people will still be on the streets, and there’s not enough housing, we just want to make sure these structures don’t come back up,” he said. 

"We're aware that people will still be on the streets, and there's not enough housing, we just want to make sure these structures don't come back up" - Michael Lukens

About a dozen homeless advocates were prepared to resist the destruction of the camp where Cinnamon lived, including Dixie Salazar.

“It was the last encampment, the last stand, and we were willing to stand between the bulldozers, if they were coming,” she said.

But by mid-morning, it looked as though the act of civil disobedience might not be necessary. Camp residents were generally complying with orders to pack up their belongings.

“I was ready to get arrested, if that’s what it took to try to keep them from harming these people,” she said. “The people have been harmed by these clean-ups, or destructions – that’s what they are.”

Nancy Holmes fears the harm she could face once she’s back on the streets - wherever she ends up. She’s lived in the camp for eight months, and says her neighbors protect her.

“I spent a couple nights in Roeding Park, and that was the most frightened I’ve ever been,” Holmes said. “I’ve had the safety of my neighbors, and now we don’t, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

City spokesman Mike Lukens expects this to be the last encampment that workers dismantle. In an e-mail, he said a city taskforce is working to ensure illegal structures don’t return. The taskforce will strive to discover and deal with the structures before they become full-blown encampments, he said.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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