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Swearengin Rejects Idea Of City-Sanctioned Homeless Camps

Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
Mayor Swearengin at a recent homeless count

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is flatly rejecting the concept of city-sanctioned homeless encampments. 

The mayor is responding to that suggestion from a candidate seeking to replace her.

Earlier this week on Valley Public Radio, Fresno County Supervisor and mayoral candidate Henry Perea suggested that if elected, he would be open to the concept of city-sanctioned homeless encampments.

“For those who aren’t ready for the home, or if the home is not available for them or if they don’t want to go into the Rescue Mission because they don’t want to go into the treatment program or the counseling, for that person who just wants to be out in the community, I think what we have to do is provide a safe shelter for them to be at, whether it’s camp, a campground that’s secured and protected and has facilities with security." Perea said.

In 2013, the city broke up several unofficial homeless camps in the downtown area.

At an event celebrating Fresno’s apparent progress in reducing the homeless population, Mayor Ashley Swearengin said establishing new encampments would be a major step backward.

“First of all, I would like to know which neighborhood wants to volunteer to host it. Number two, in the encampments themselves we started to have public health issues. We had a scabies outbreak. We were having rapes going on. Drug sales were happening. It was a hot bed for criminal activity that was really not good for anyone living in the encampment,” Swearengin said.

Swearengin said that it takes more work to find long term solutions to homelessness but she thinks the city is now headed down the right path. She intends to release a three year anti-homelessness plan to assist the next mayor.

Cruz Avila, the director of the Poverello House homeless shelter, agreed that the camps fostered drug use and crime and said reestablishing them would require significant city services to handle sanitation and safety.

“It’s not the right answer. I don’t believe it is the right answer to have encampments. And if you do have encampments, there has to be so much security. You have to have so much around it,” Avila said.

Several communities in the U.S. are currently experimenting with official government supported campsites for homeless residents.

According to official city data, Fresno’s homeless population is declining.

However, some activists say that is simply the result of the city dispersing the homeless population, making it harder to estimate the number of people living on the streets.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.
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