Does Fresno’s New Law Make It Harder to Help Homeless People?
A new coalition of homeless advocates plans to take legal action against the city of Fresno and a new ordinance members say places unnecessary restrictions on advocates working to help the homeless living in encampments.
The California Divide
The new ordinance, which was approved on Jan. 27 and authored by Fresno City Councilmembers Luis Chavez and Miguel Arias, says that anyone who enters a restricted abatement area without express authority from the city could be charged with a misdemeanor or fined up to $250.
“We have a lot of issues with the amended ordinance and we do intend to file legal action,” said Anthony Prince, general counsel and lead organizer for the California Homeless Union, a community-funded organization that serves the unhoused community.
The newly formed Fresno Homeless Union chapter is led by longtime homeless advocate Dez Martinez. The group says the new ordinance limits the ability of the public to witness a public process, restricts advocates helping the unhoused, and “deputizes” civilian employees.
Prince said the abatement ordinance is part of a “statewide intensification” of a war on poor and homeless people.
“This is happening all over the state of California,” Prince said. “They’ve decided to make the homeless the scapegoat for all of society’s problems.”
Currently, the organization is putting together its legal case and gathering testimony from plaintiffs.
The group plans to seek a temporary restraining order or an injunction to freeze the ordinance before it goes into effect at the end of February.
Does New Rule ‘Deputize Civilian Employees?’
During the Jan. 27 city council meeting, a number of homeless advocates spoke against the ordinance — as well as the new Homeless Assistance Response Team — saying that the approach is a step toward criminalizing homelessness.
“It (the abatement ordinance) really should just be called advocate prevention because that’s basically what you’re going to do,” said Tower resident, Lisa Flores.
The Fresno County Homeless Union issued a letter dated Jan. 26 calling on the city council to reject the ordinance, arguing that it violates various state and federal laws.
The letter, which was read during the council meeting, said “the amendment essentially deputizes civilian employees and private entities to perform what would essentially be a law enforcement functions.”
The letter also says that limiting access to the abatement zone increases the risk of “arbitrary deprivation of constitutionally protected rights to would-be witnesses, documentarians, and legal representatives.”
“The city simply wants no witnesses, media, or supporters when they abuse the homeless and violate their rights,” said Dez Martinez, homeless advocate, during public comment of the Jan 27 city council meeting.
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City Officials Defend New Ordinance
City leaders pushed back, saying the abatement ordinance is just a way to document the city’s administrative procedures for abatement cleanups.
It’s always been the practice to “tape off” an abatement zone, said Arias in an interview with The Bee on Wednesday. “It just had never been memorialized in an ordinance.”
The Fresno Homeless Union has also said the new rule isn’t clear about who qualifies to be present during abatement.
“It’s vague, over-broad, and therefore it’s constitutionally problematic from those standpoints,” said Prince.
Advocates say their presence is essential to help the unhoused during an abatement clean up, especially for the elderly or people with physical disabilities who might need more time and help to move their things. Plus, advocates say they have better relationships and trust with the homeless than the city’s official outreach HART team.
“We, as advocates, we deescalate situations,” said Cindy Pambino of Christ Helping Hands during the Jan. 27 city council meeting. “It’s really unfair that we’re being targeted.”
“Please don’t criminalize advocates and the homeless further,” said Robert McCloskey. “I will fight this thing….I personally promise you I will not leave (an abatement zone), I will make a stink. And let’s go to court over it.”
Arias said that he is taking these concerns seriously in an interview with The Fresno Bee on Friday.
”That’s why I personally went to observe the (HART team) de-encampment that took place on H Street and San Benito Street (earlier this week),” said Arias.
“I clearly observed the advocates allowed to completely interact with the homeless residents that were being relocated and with the support staff that was helping them. So I did not observe … any of their concerns coming to fruition,” he said.
Related Story: Councilmembers Listen as Fresno Homeless Share Their Stories
Is City ‘Intimidating’ Private Property Owners?
Prince said he believes the city’s recently approved dumping ordinance — which reduces the abatement deadline for property owners from 30 days to 10 days before code enforcement cleans it up and sends the owner the bill — is actually a bill to address encampments.
“On the one hand, I think they’re trying to say that the homeless themselves engage in illegal dumping,” Prince said.
On the other hand, Prince said that the ordinance is “aimed at intimidating” property owners that allow people to set up tents on their property, which, Prince added, further limits the ability to help the unhoused.
Arias: Ordinance Is Response to Residents’ Complaints
City leaders disagree.
“This (illegal dumping) abatement ordinance for property owners to clean the property, or the city will do it at their expense, is a direct response to residents who submit hundreds of complaints every month to our offices.” — Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias
“This (illegal dumping) abatement ordinance for property owners to clean the property, or the city will do it at their expense, is a direct response to residents who submit hundreds of complaints every month to our offices,” Arias said.
Arias acknowledged that some trash comes from homeless as well as homeless service providers that deliver food on the streets, but also said that the majority of the people dumping are housed people and small businesses, not homeless. For example, Arias said, the city has seen illegal dumping from building contractors that do renovations but don’t want to pay the dumping charge at the landfill.
“When those illegal dump sites begin, that attracts folks to come in and continue that activity,” he said.
Arias said there are two different purposes with the new abatement ordinances as they relate to encampment clean-ups.
One is to clean up the trash when there’s nobody there.
Fresno residents have been “crystal clear” that they want their neighborhood cleaned of “piles of garbage and human feces,” that some property owners have permitted on their property, said Arias.
Related Story: What Are Next Steps in Fresno’s Effort to Reduce Homelessness?
Preparation for Move Into Shelter
The second purpose is to clean up a former encampment after people have gathered their belongings and are preparing to move into an available shelter space.
“If there’s ever a tent that’s still not packed, then we have folks who physically will go and check in that there’s nobody in the tent,” said Arias.
The phase of the abatement cleanup which limits advocate access is after the individual and their belongings are relocated, said Arias, when a hazmat clean up will come in and clean the abatement area with heavy equipment such as tractors and forklifts.
“We don’t want to get anybody hurt,” said Arias.
Last year, a Modesto woman was killed by a Caltrans worker during an encampment clean-up.
About the Author
Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
California Divide stories are distributed by CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.