I am often appalled by the words used to describe homeless people in Fresno.  I read these words on social media. I hear them in conversations.

Bums, vagrants, scum and campers, they are called.

Dangerous, dirty, criminals.

They’re lazy and good for nothing. They’re trespassers. They relieve themselves on sidewalks and bathe in fountains.

Well, guess what, Fresno?

We’ll be a much better city if we change the tone of the conversation — among ourselves and city leaders.

Right now, public vitriol and outrage are so extreme that Councilman Steve Brandau felt compelled to react to pressure from constituents and the business community by crafting the “Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act” that went into effect Sept. 29.

People who are caught sleeping on public or private property must choose between finding “help” or going to jail. Refusal of help could result in a $1,000 fine and a six-month stay in jail.

“Tough Love” Isn’t the Answer

The belief is that wielding the “tough love” hammer from the toolbox will result in solving homelessness. A similar ordinance in Houston, Texas, banning camping in public places has been met by a temporary restraining order from a federal judge.

Ninety percent of Fresno’s collective past and present flawed thinking and action regarding homelessness has brought us to this point. The time has come to reboot and reset our perceptions of the homeless.

A multitude of people (now homeless) in Florida and Texas are suffering the catastrophic effects of multiple hurricanes and are rebooting their entire existence. How can perceptions of Fresno’s homeless who have experienced the “hurricanes” of loss of family, addiction or mental illness be shifted?

We begin by giving the gift of dignity. Be in conversation with a homeless person. Ask what their name is and tell them yours. Ask them about family members (remember, though, that the primary cause of chronic homelessness is the catastrophic and profound loss of family, according to Alan Graham, founder of Community First! Village in Austin, Texas).

Listen with an open heart and mind, and imagine you are speaking to someone who has lost everything they own and love in a hurricane or an earthquake. Remember,  addiction, mental and physical illness are hurricanes of the same magnitude as those that washed away the hopes and dreams and possessions of people in Texas and Florida.

No homeless in your neighborhood? The next time you stop at a light and there’s a homeless person standing two feet from your car, look at them and smile instead of averting your eyes. Before the light changes, roll the window down and ask them what their name is.

Dignity. Easy. Kind. Feels good.

We’re All One Catastrophe From Homelessness

How relevant would an “Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act” be in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico or Mexico — where homelessness in a blink of an eye has occurred?

Remember that we live in California, where the reality of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake is now 50 years past due. Indeed, earthquakes and hurricanes strip away material possessions, leaving us only with dignity.

Shifting and reframing perceptions of homelessness instead of dealing out tough love will result in dignity, hope, and progress in ending chronic homelessness.

Nancy Flynn of Fresno is a grandmother, feng shui consultant, educator and homeless advocate.

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