Fresno’s no-camping ordinance -- aimed at sprawling tent cities -- has been in effect for about a year and a half. Since then, the homeless population has slowly increased, and the city recently received millions in state funds to tackle homelessness issues. However, some would argue that policies like the no-camping ban are making life more difficult for the homeless, and that the emergency money is only funding short-term fixes.
Ray, who prefers to be on a first name basis only, is such a person; he says he’s been on a housing waiting list for a while now. In the meantime, he’s lying on a mattress that sits directly on the sidewalk without any shelter or tent. His makeshift bed is right outside the Poverello House, which provides meals and services for the homeless.
“This is where I came because I knew I could survive here,” Ray says.
It’s not the first time Ray has been homeless, but because the waitlist for housing is so long, he’s been sleeping outside, which means that he sees police regularly. According to police records, Ray was even arrested in early February for “obstructing public passageway.”
“I have done everything they've asked me to do,” Ray says of the police. “The location I'm sitting in right now is where the officer who arrested me told me to set up my tent. Before that he had me in the field across the way, before that it was across the street, before that it was over here.”
Once he was taken to jail, Ray was let go. However, he had to leave his stuff back on that sidewalk, and he says it was gone when he returned.
“I've only been accumulating what I have since Tuesday,” says Ray. “They took everything I owned. My bicycle, my wheelchair, everything.”
Ray says he can’t get around without a wheelchair, so he’s not moving far from this location anytime soon. He wants to charge his phone but the library’s a bit of a trek -- and he doesn’t want to leave his things behind.
“I'm okay, you know I'll be okay,” he says. “I just need to be in a situation where I'm not having repeated daily contact with law enforcement. It's not in anybody's best interest.”
Fresno Police did have a lot of contacts with the homeless population last year, most of them through their Homeless Task Force. Lieutenant Rob Beckwith, with the Fresno Police Department, says the force had over 9,000 contacts with homeless people in 2018.
“We advise them of whatever the issue is that they may be violating whether it's trespassing, whether it is a no- camping ordinance and they are most times, very cooperative,” says Lieutenant Rob Beckwith.
Fresno’s homeless population is only about eighteen hundred individuals, so many of the contacts were repeat interactions. Many interactions have been related to the camping ban, but there were onlu 15 arrests in the last year for camping violations. Beckwith says, the idea is not to criminalize homelessness, but to make connections so people know what services are available, like short-term housing, meals, and substance abuse programs.
Despite the efforts, Beckwith says very few homeless people accept the services he offers. Only one percent of the contacts in 2018 resulted in someone accepting services.
With all of these interactions, Patience Milrod, the executive director of Central California Legal Services, thinks it’s worrisome how often homeless people are approached by law enforcement, even though officers are just doing their job.
“There is no other question that it is really hard to live in a community where there are a lot of people living on the street,” Milrod says. “To address the matter, it's not going to work for us to demonize those folks.”
Milrod says, even with services, the city still seems to be missing what homeless people actually need -- an affordable place to live.
“As rents go up, homelessness increases. Big surprise right? I mean this is kind of Economics 101,” says Milrod. “Unless and until we’re prepared to put serious money into building housing for people and preserving housing that is affordable to people at our client’s price point, then we're not going to fix the problem.”
Councilmember Luis Chavez agrees that more affordable housing is needed -- and the city should work with private companies to build it. But he says that such housing shouldn’t just be focused in southwest and southeast Fresno.
“From my point of view, I think it's easier to place them on the corridors where we have transportation, we have services, we have amenities,” says Chavez. “So we need to figure out a way of placing these projects across the city."
Chavez voted in favor of the camping ban when it was proposed. He says he was responding to calls his office received about how homeless encampments have become problems for residents and businesses.
While the ban has made sprawling tent cities less likely, it’s also made it harder to find large groups of homeless people.
At least that’s the case for the Point In Time count, where volunteers tally and survey the homeless population throughout Fresno County. The team surveying northwest Fresno went to multiple parks and open spaces, where they didn’t find any homeless people.
But right outside Fresno’s newest Wal Mart, Aimee Bird, one of the volunteers, met a few people, including a man named Sean.
“Are you currently homeless?” Bird asks. “No I just bought me a truck!” Sean replies. “So you’re living out of your truck?” Bird clarifies.
Sean and the other homeless people weren’t camping in tents, or sleeping in the street. And it’s easier to move a car from place to place than just a mattress.