They, the homeless
Pinwheels, smiley-face balloons, sun-bleached American flags, potted plants, tattered chairs, chewed-up stuffed animals, tents, Tuff Sheds, huts of plywood, huts of plastic bags and tarpaulins, concrete storm sewer casings branded with “Piranha” and a scattering of barking dogs.
You hear names assigned to places, names that don’t jibe with street signs — The Hill, The Slope, Hag Island. The land that is covered with open encampments of Fresno’s homeless — by some estimates more than 4,000 in the city — “involves” a United Nations of entities: City of Fresno, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Fresno Irrigation District, Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District, California Department of Transportation.
The people want to know if you are coming to evict them — you’re a bunch of suits or women in crisp business attire. The people wave, smile, stare, walk to Poverello House for their breakfasts, ask a companion to find their medicine, throw wood scraps on a fire to cook something of their own as a July morning slowly simmers.
There is one camp, bisected by rail tracks, that’s home to sex offenders. Some on parole with GPS ankle bracelets. The stench and flies are dense. Sanitation is one dirt mound or another.
An owner of an adjacent wood products business asks the van full of visitors — I’m part of a group, Fresno First Steps Home — what can be done to resettle the residents who’re scaring staff and customers.
There is incremental movement. Some comes from Fresno First Steps Home, a effort joining Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, area hospitals like Community Medical Centers, community-based groups like United Way, and activists like Tom Richards. During the tour, Greg Barfield, whom some have dubbed the city’s “homeless czar,” gives a litany of the church groups feeding and praying with the various clusters of people gathered under freeways, on shuttered highway ramps and populating the streets and curbs near the Rescue Mission and the Pov.
Fresno First Steps Home aims to resettle the homeless in permanent residences, in part, using methods that have proved successful elsewhere in the nation. It is time-consuming and heavy with legal fenceposts, in its own way as mind-boggling as the hours of people’s lives swallowed up on curbsides.
Another form of assistance rolled out in July as hospitals, including Community, clinics and other care providers, opened two medical respite centers, under the aegis of the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California. There’ll be beds for eight homeless men to continue their medical recuperation at the Fresno Rescue Mission — the first patient was admitted July 13 — and respite space for two homeless women at the Mental Health System’s Hacienda Facility.
When you have little, the little matters.
A man with a scuffed-up face picks his way across the railroad tracks at Ventura Avenue, a white hospital wristband dangling above his hand. That’s a mark of belonging, I’m told, that even if he doesn’t have a home address, he’s registered as a real person somewhere.
Another man pushes a shopping cart full of trash, tilting it into a growing pile of discards on an E Street freeway offramp — not a single bottle or can that has redeemable recycling money attached to it. He’s cleaning out his living space, I’m told, he cares about the spot he calls home.
You see the many, many things before you see the people. The too many people.