By: Manuela Tobias
August 26, 2019 —
Michael Martinez moved four times in July.
When BNSF Railway contractors showed up at his camp along the railroad tracks near downtown Fresno, he was given 30 minutes to clear out. A flyer posted in the area about a week earlier served as his only notice.
He moved most of his stuff but lost a lot of his clothes, blankets and cooking items when a bulldozer razed the camp a short time later.
Martinez went to another encampment under a freeway overpass until he and others were forced out by the California Department of Transportation and the California Highway Patrol. Lately, he’s been camping in an alley in central Fresno but says it’s only a matter of time before he’s forced to move again.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to be OK,” Martinez said.
It’s just the way things are for Martinez and other homeless residents who frequently pack their belongings into makeshift carts on their way to the next temporary camp.
“It’s like, one agency tells you to go to the other agency’s spot,” Martinez said. “When that agency finds out, they tell you to get out of there, and they don’t care if you go back to the other one. State and city, it’s kind of a pickle. You’re jeopardizing your freedom by listening to them, they’re not giving you anything safe. It just puts you in harm’s way continuously.”
Another homeless resident interviewed by The Bee dubbed the result “the homeless shuffle.”
“They like to see the homeless shuffling. Long as you shuffling and moving about then you alright. Every time they show up you gotta start packing up and getting on.”
ADDRESSING ENCAMPMENTS ‘COMPASSIONATELY’
County officials, however, said they are doing everything they can to help people in Martinez’s situation. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors paired up with multiple agencies and companies, like BNSF and the California Department of Transportation, to clean up the areas outside the county’s jurisdiction for health and safety concerns. Fresno’s Homeless Task Force does the same for camping on city grounds.
The county sends social service workers to each camp to offer a flyer and talk through available services to residents. Sometimes, Fresno police officers show up, as well.
On Aug. 6, the county awarded BNSF Railway a certificate of recognition for its work cleaning up 51 homeless encampments in the past year.
“BNSF has been addressing encampments so compassionately, making sure there’s an outreach team and they’re out of harm’s way,” said Sonia De La Rosa, the main analyst at the County Administrative Office.
That’s the other side of the “homeless shuffle” – many of the people in those 51 camps, authorities acknowledge, are just the same groups moved around the city over and over.
Lena Kent, director of public affairs for BNSF, called the collaboration with Fresno County a “successful program” because of good communication with the county and a low return rate to exact locations. But she acknowledged few people are moving off the street.
The more contacts police and social service members make with the homeless, De La Rosa said, the greater the chance they may accept help.
Fresno Police Lt. Rob Beckwith, who heads the Homeless Task Force, said that unless people accept assistance, authorities are forced to shuffle them around the city. Police want to avoid having more than 10 people camp in the same spot for more than 10 days, as it becomes a much more complicated process to break up such camps.
This year, 2,131 people in Fresno lived without a home, according to data from the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, with 343 sheltered and 1,788 unsheltered.
Since Jan. 1, Fresno’s Homeless Task Force reported contact with 4,346 homeless individuals, many of whom they see often, and cleared 3,478 camps. In that time, 69 people accepted services. Police said 305 resulted in some type of law enforcement action, ranging from citations to felony arrests.
Why do many homeless residents refuse the help?
Some people are not willing to submit to certain rules, like drug tests at some shelters, or being separated from their partners, Beckwith said. Others have had bad experiences.
And some simply prefer to live on the street.
MILLIONS DON’T BEGIN TO COVER THE COSTS
But it’s not just a matter of homeless residents refusing help.
Even if authorities made services more attractive to the homeless population, there isn’t enough to go around. “I recognize if we’ve got 1,700 people and all of them said, ‘OK, give us some services,’ we have a problem on our hands,” Beckwith said. “I think everyone knows that. But you can see from the numbers, the key is, we have to figure out a way to get these folks to want these services a little bit more.”
And it’s unclear whether there are enough resources to help the smaller number of residents willing to accept them now.
For Natasha Hernandez, who is seven months pregnant, homelessness was not a choice. She wants to get off the streets but the city runs out of beds every night.
“The shelters are first-come, first-serve. I know I should think about myself, but I see a lot of women and their children out here. So I let them take my spot because they need the help more than I know I do. I know I need help as well but their children are with them right now. I’m pregnant so I still have some time.”
Hernandez also said the police don’t explain available services when they show up to clear encampments.
“They don’t even tell us about trying to get help or trying to find somewhere to go or where we can go and we won’t be bothered. They’d just rather pick us up and take us to jail or just throw all our stuff away.”
Laura Moreno, program manager with the Department of Social Services, said every new emergency shelter bed opened this year was filled within the first two weeks.
“We don’t have enough shelter beds for everybody on our streets,” Moreno said. “So what do people do? What choices do they have?
CAMPS ARE NOT A GOOD OPTION
She said makeshift encampments are dangerous and unsanitary.
“Do we have a better option? No. But (the camps) are not a good option, either,” Moreno said. “When people are on the street for a long time it becomes normal, and we don’t want people to get used to living on the street.”
So authorities are forced to stretch their funding as much as possible. Fresno received about $14 million in new funding from the Homeless Emergency Aid Program and California Emergency Solutions to address homeless issues this year, with about $3.1 million going to the city of Fresno and $11 million going to the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care administered by Fresno County.
About $4.13 million in county funding went toward 90 new beds at triage emergency shelter services at Mental Health Systems, Naomi’s House at the Povorello House, and Turning Point of Central California. An additional $1.48 million administered by the city went toward 37 more beds at Turning Point. Those are slated to open during the first week of September.
The triage centers allow people to stay all day with one pet, store their belongings, have three meals daily and access other services. Low-barrier access means they can be under the influence at the time of entry, but cannot use or have drugs on campus.
“If they go off-site and use, we won’t turn them away when they come back,” said Jody Ketcheside, who runs Turning Point.
The money pays for rent, supplies, beds, and 24-hour staffing. Each triage center bed, according to the city’s spending plan, costs around $20,000 over two years. Ketcheside said because people cannot stay more than 90 days, housing each person costs around $7,400.
Overnight shelters are a much less expensive prospect, but triage centers are designed to help people develop a housing plan and move out. The rest of the new funding went toward bridge housing, outreach and rehousing efforts.
Ketcheside said Turning Point filled within hours of opening. Naomi’s House may have up to two spots available at the beginning of the month and may not have any at all.
The Fresno Rescue Mission is at capacity, also, but still accepts whoever turns up in their overflow shelters, according to its CEO, Matt Dildine. He said the shelter does not test incoming individuals for drugs at its emergency shelters. Dogs over a certain size are sent offsite, and men and women are generally separated because the area for couples is occupied by families.
The Rescue Mission and others, like Evangel Home, also offer programs described as high-barrier housing services, which require individuals to pass drug tests and fulfill other criteria.
DOES ANYONE KNOW THE COST TO FIX?
Authorities say they need more money – a lot more money – if they’re going to get a handle on these problems. But it’s unclear whether anyone knows how much it would cost to fix the problem in Fresno permanently.
There are too many variables to ballpark a total cost estimate, De La Rosa said. Some people might just need help mending ties with their families, while others may need years of mental health resources and housing.
There will be an additional $175 million available statewide to supplement funding homeless issues from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget, and Fresno agencies hope to get at best only a small cut.
De La Rosa said that if the county wants to get everyone off the streets, it needs enough beds for the unsheltered homeless count of 1,788.
Beds alone won’t end Fresno’s homeless shuffle. De La Rosa said residents need housing and that’s even more expensive still.
“But if you don’t have permanent housing, that is just going to be temporary.”