Last week we reported on homelessness in Fresno, and how Mayor Lee Brand hopes his new initiative finds common ground between advocates and organizations. At the same time, a group of neighbors in northwest Fresno released a video urging people not to give out money to people on the street. They say that not everyone with signs are homeless, and giving out money hurts more than helps them. Since releasing the video, the group has received support from city officials, but pushback from homeless advocates.
In one parking lot of northwest Fresno, dealing with the homeless is a daily occurrence for Long Xiong. He’s a security guard at the intersection of West Shaw Avenue and North Valentine Avenue. He patrols the parking lot in front of the Broadway Faire movie theater. In the year that he’s watched this particular area, he says that there seems to be less homeless people around.
“I mean, they don't do anything bad, but a lot of people don't like them around,” says Xiong. When a client calls, it’s Xiong’s job to ask the person to move along.
“There were people camping around stuff, so we had to like, tell them to kind of move off the property,” says Xiong. “I mean, honestly, I'm kind of glad. It was rough before. But I’m kind of glad that it got kind of cooled down a little bit.”
Xiong couldn’t say whether the change is because of the city’s no-camping ban, which was created last year. But where he feels like the homeless population has gone down, one group of residents has spoken up with concerns that homelessness along this area of Shaw Avenue is growing.
“There’s like 5 percent of them that legit need help,” says Jim Jakobs. He’s an assistant news director for KFSN and a resident of the area. “There's a major difference between panhandlers and homeless. Most panhandlers are not homeless.”
Jakobs started the Facebook group, “Save Shaw Avenue” back in February, after noticing that a nearby businesses were shutting down.
“Really it started with Tahoe Joe’s shutting down, and then Toys ‘R’ Us is shutting down,” Jakobs says. “ I noticed, like, some homeless people on the corner. I’m like, okay, this is just not good. And I thought, okay. If our businesses start disappearing here, what's going to come in here? Nothing.”
Jakobs says the idea is to ultimately save Shaw Avenue from blight, and get people excited about bringing business to the area. The group has become a virtual neighborhood watch that focuses on the western region of Shaw Avenue, from North Marks Avenue to Highway 99. A quick scroll through the group shows a number of posts about graffiti and encounters with homeless people. Jakobs says he wants to make the page a place for conversation, but also for education.
“We're trying to encourage people to give to charity rather than just hand out stuff out the windows,” says Jakobs. “Because that's just killing these folks out here, and it’s killing our businesses.”
Last week, the group published an eight-minute long video Jakobs produced, entitled “Save Shaw Ave.” It emphasizes his message that there’s a difference between panhandlers and those who are genuinely homeless. Voices from the Fresno Rescue Mission and the mayor’s office claim that giving out money to people hurts more than it helps. They say the handouts enable people to get by while living on the street, without seeking further assistance.
That area of Shaw Avenue straddles the 1st and 2nd City Districts, and both Councilmember Steve Brandau and Council President Esmeralda Soria have expressed support for the group’s enthusiasm.
Brandau, who represents the north side of Shaw, has even attended the group’s recent neighborhood cleanup.
“They've got some goals for Shaw,” says Brandau. “They're tired of the blight, they know there is a homeless element and they're very concerned about not letting Shaw degrade further than it has, so I think it's fantastic.”
Brandau says that hearing from businesses about homelessness motivated him to propose the camping ban last year. He adds that homelessness is probably not the only reason for businesses leaving the area.
“There’s other problems that are impacting Shaw and some of them are real simple, and some of them are outside of our control,” Brandau says. “Like for instance, the struggle of retail in the internet age. Right, there’s other big retail outlets, and huge shopping centers that are attracting people with other activities, theaters and all kinds of different stuff that also pull people away from Shaw, and other streets as well.”
Council President Esmeralda Soria represents southwest Fresno, including the south side of Shaw Avenue. She says that this is actually the first time she’s heard complaints about homelessness from that part of her district. Throughout the city, though, Soria says she wants to see a comprehensive approach to the issue.
“The city can't solve homelessness on our own, which is the reasons why we've entered into partnerships with the Fresno Rescue Mission, the Housing Authority, Poverello,” says Soria. “But we really need to just continue working together, one, to improve quality of life of homeless population and of the residents, obviously, that live in those surrounding neighborhoods, but that we also tackle some of the issues that come with this population.”
That seems to be the overall goal of “Save Shaw Avenue” -- find ways to reduce homelessness and improve the area to appeal to businesses. But some homeless advocates, like Mike Rhodes, have pushed back, saying that to dissuade people from handing out money is cruel in itself.
“If being cruel to the homeless -- which has been the policy of the City of Fresno for decades now -- if that was successful, homelessness would have been over a long time ago,” Rhodes says.
Rhodes is a long-time Fresno activist, and author of a book about homelessness in Fresno, called “Dispatches from the War Zone.”
He says that the city and organizations could reduce homelessness just by providing a safe and legal place where people could stay and manage their possessions.
“I’m not saying that if you give a homeless person a dollar that that’s going to solve homelessness,” Rhodes says. “But it's just a basic human thing to want to help people out, get them through a difficult time.”
Jim Jakobs says that for the most part, the video and group have received positive feedback, but he knows there are those like Mike Rhodes, who disagree with him.
“It’s a sticky wicket, I get it. I mean, I’ve been yelled at, we’ve been told that we're hunting homeless, we’re cold hearted, we’re hypocritical,” says Jakobs. “And I try and let them know, no I’m not out there hunting homeless, I’m out there trying to help them and educate people on how to help them.”
For now, one has to wonder if that will be enough to save Shaw Avenue.