Timothy Jackson is hammering together pallets at the site of his new home, an encampment near a Highway 99 overpass in downtown Fresno.
“Just like a few pallets and you can make anything into a deck,” he says, bending over a wooden structure.
The former tile and granite worker is building a railing to help with mobility for the camp’s elderly members.
“It’s not going to go very far, but they can at least get to the bathroom when they need to,” he says.
Jackson is one of the camp’s newest residents. He’s been here for four days. His previous encampment was on Highway 168 near Shaw. But he was displaced last week after a Caltrans highway cleanup.
“I basically lost everything, they bulldozed it all. So I just came here with two bags and that’s it,” he says.
Jackson says he didn't get the required 72 hours notice before Caltrans moved in.
“They came the night before and said, ‘hey, we might be coming through’ and everything else, and I was like, that’s not enough time. As soon as they woke us up, they were like, you got 20 minutes to grab whatever you can,” he says.
Jackson found out about this camp from a homeless advocate and decided to come here; he walked six miles, from 168 to downtown at Broadway and San Benito. Dez Martinez runs the encampment as part of her non-profit, We Are Not Invisible. She calls it a ‘Safe Camp.’
“I thank God that she let me in, because if not I would just be out, just wandering around,” Jackson says.
Martinez says Jackson was one of several people who arrived as a result of the Highway 168 cleanup.
“I knew they were coming, I didn't think they were coming that fast. When I showed up, my whole walkway was like, full of stuff, people. I just felt like I just wanted to break down right then and there,” Martinez says.
Martinez originally had 15 people at her encampment. But the highway displacement more than doubled that number to 32.
Unlike other homeless organizations that partner with Fresno, Martinez doesn’t receive public funding. At last week’s city council meeting, she told them she needed help.
“We just need food and shelter and warmth and sanitation, just to survive until you help us, that’s what we need,” she said.
Under Mayor Jerry Dyer, the Project Offramp initiative has prioritized moving those experiencing homelessness off city highways and into shelters. Typically, the city partners with Caltrans in the operations. But H. Spees, Fresno’s director of Housing and Homeless Services said the city wasn’t involved in this clean up.
“That was a Caltrans action, unilateral Caltrans action. I will say this, that because of the chaos that created, the city was asked to help,” he said.
City of Fresno sanitation vehicles stepped in to move property, at the request of the displaced, to Martinez’s camp, said Spees. Caltrans has not returned a phone call from KVPR to clarify what happened with the operation.
The news about the transfer to Martinez’s camp came as a surprise to council members. Miguel Arias and Esmeralda Soria immediately spoke out in support of Martinez.
“But we can’t just leave her, just kind of out there without providing resources,” said Soria at the meeting.
Arias added, “When we use our vehicles to transport people, we are now responsible for where we transport them to and whether they have services.”
But the discussion sparked a debate as to whether the city should direct its funds to encampments. Council member Garry Bredefeld was against it.
“I don't want the city council to come up with money to give in any way to Dez Martinez who has no background in mental health or anything else, professional degree,” he said.
Council members will need to decide whether to fund the encampment. They will come back to discuss a plan on April 8th. In the meantime, Martinez is on her own and she says for now, she has no other choice but to help the displaced.
“We’re not trying to take over the city with more encampments. We’re trying to provide a safe place because of the lack of resources we have in Fresno. There’s not enough beds and there’s not going to be enough beds,” she says.
After the city council meeting, Martinez says the community stepped in to fill the gap. Donors gave supplies and funds, which are already being put to use.
“This is one of the sheds that was actually donated and this is a big old 10x10 portable shed,” she says as she pulls up a tarp covering for the shed to show off what’s inside.
“We were able to utilize the funds that were donated to purchase supplies and purchase shelving units because now not everything is on the floor in boxes.” she says.
New shelves are lined up and organized into sections for toiletries and pantry items. She shows off a new box of solar panels and heavy duty lights.
“So with these solar panels, I’m gonna hook up a lighting system so we can have lights. Because that’s kind of the worst thing down here is not having any lights or not being able to see people.”
Martinez says one of the most helpful new additions is more durable tent sheds with metal frames.
“The wind, this withholds the wind. Everything that we went through with the tents collapsing, that’s what made me think of these. The frames are so much stronger,” she says.
Today, the wind is picking up and it’s a struggle to build the first tent in the gusts. With a 12 foot ceiling and no ladder, it took five people to hoist and secure a tarp over one shed.
“And then you’ll put the piece in there and then we gotta get these in the ground,” Andrea Harper calls out directions for the shed, as she’s hunched over a box of parts. She’s a long time member of the street family.
“If there’s any type of, any job, I’ll do it,” she says. Harper is known as the resident mechanic who loves to take things apart and rebuild them. Today, she’s in charge of building the tents. She’s just built one and has three more to go. It’s been a rush to accommodate all the extra people from Highway 168.
“Because the way we’re getting people in, is like, we don't have nothing up for them when they come in, so I want to make sure we have them up,” Martinez says to Harper as they scan the encampment.
“So it’s 15x15, 12x12, 15x15, 12x12? Ok?” Harper says to Martinez as they plan out how to add more tents, spacing them 12 feet apart to comply with CDC regulations.
Standing a few yards away from Harper, Ernie DeLeon is busy clearing the ground for new tent space for the incoming people. He uses water to wet the ground. It softens the dirt so he can sweep and clear away rocks and debris.
“It took a lot of hours, but I did it. I’m able to help with some of my brothers and sisters out here,” he says.
Martinez says he’s been pulling 12 hour shifts to get the camp cleared for new tents. She’s also working such long days that she’s sleeping at the camp. She says her friends here keep her going.
“Like, if they see me down, they always lift me up. They always tell me, you know,” she pauses with tears in her eyes, her voice breaking as she continues. “The thing that keeps me going is when I break, it’s them that hold me together. Nobody else, it’s them. Because they see me break down a lot lately.”
Until the city decides whether to help fund the encampment, Martinez is running it with donations given on her website, We Are Not Invisible.