As housing crisis prevails, Fresno has a temporary solution to keep makeshift camps clean
It’s 7 a.m. and the sidewalk along this industrial intersection at H and San Benito is crowded with tents covered in tarp.
A 60-year-old man named Gary starts to break down his shelter. He works methodically, folding his tarp and moving the things he wants to keep to the opposite side of the street.
He walks with a limp. He says he just healed from a broken hip and only recently started walking again.
“I only started walking 4 weeks ago,” he says, standing over a heap of plastic bags.
Leonard Allen True, 55, takes a broom and sweeps a section of the sidewalk.
“These people vacated so I'm just sweeping, helping out the cleanup day,” he says.
The middle of the street is piling up with debris and unwanted belongings. Today is clean up day and city crews are standing by.
H. Spees, director of Fresno’s Housing and Homeless Initiatives is on-site to check in on the cleanup operation.
“Today, we're simply asking people to move their stuff, downsize, whatever they don't want, they can put in the middle of the street. We'll pick it up,” he says.
Two Fresno police cars have blocked off the entrances to H and San Benito Streets. Tractors and dump trucks are parked off to the side. Several city workers in bright orange shirts wait to sweep up the debris.
Once people move their belongings, city crews will spray and sanitize the sidewalk. Spees says an operation like this is necessary for health and safety.
“One of the things that is really important is keeping areas clean. We can't always house everybody, but you know, we've had cities in California that have had Hepatitis A epidemics and it's because they don't do this,” he says.
The city says it notified people ahead of time. After the cleanup, the tents will be allowed to move back onto the sidewalk. Spees admits this is the only option right now with a lack of shelter beds, mental health and rehab services, and affordable housing.
“You add all those things up and people are dropping off the bottom of the ladder at an alarming rate,” he says. Spees says he estimates that Fresno’s unhoused population has grown to 4,000, including more than 1,000 staying in shelters.
Dez Martinez, a homeless advocate and founder of the non-profit We Are Not Invisible, sits on a discarded chair on San Benito Street.
“Yeah I just want to make sure that people are able to move back to their spots because we have absolutely no room at all,” she says.
She’s just outside the gates of her former safe camp. She ran it for more than a year, but officially closed it in September. She says seeing many of the same people who occupied a tent in her camp back on this street, made her want to open the gate again.
“But I knew mentally, I can't. It's not good for my health to do it all by myself all over again,” she says.
Martinez says her camp was a more stable environment for the community, but it was impossible to manage with more than 30 occupants at one point, and no staff to help.
“You know, it took months of work, you know. A couple of the people, they were extreme hoarders and now they have half the block loaded up with their stuff and it's like, dang, we worked for a whole year and you were doing so good,” she says.
A few hours into the cleanup and front end loaders are in motion, moving dump piles into garbage trucks.
Martinez wants the city to utilize unused spaces as managed camps to avoid areas like this one being cleaned up. She says implementing rules at her camp helped to keep order.
“When they’re out here on the streets like this, you get to do whatever you want to do. There’s no curfew, there’s no this, there’s no that. You can throw your trash anywhere you want because it’s just a landfill of trash everywhere you lay your head,” she says pointing to the piles of stuff littering the street.
Spees say sanctioning encampments is not an option because of the potential dangers of gangs, drugs and prostitution running rampant in the camps. The city is instead working on building more hotel rooms and trying to grow the stock of affordable housing; all options with a long term timeline. But Martinez says the need is now.