In 2008, the City of Fresno and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) paid a hefty settlement of $2.3 million for seizing and destroying homeless residents’ personal property and signed an agreement on how to deal with homeless encampments in the future.
But according to nine lawsuits filed last week on behalf of twelve homeless residents, the city and Caltrans have resumed a policy of “demolition and destruction of dwellings and personal property” since October of last year. Central California Legal Services (CCLS) has interviewed over 100 people and more legal action is expected in the coming weeks.
“Starting last September, the city clearly made a decision to try to get rid of all the homeless encampments that there are in Fresno,” says Chris Schneider, director of CCLS, where he has worked for nineteen years. “They started doing what they call ‘cleanups’ but it’s really just destructions of the encampments. The city comes in and says, ‘You’ve got to get out of here.’ Then as soon as people set up somewhere else the police come and tell them to move on from there too. There is just less and less space to go to, while the number of homeless have risen in the bad economy.”
The city claims that it stores people’s belongings, and while Schneider says that’s true for a lucky few, there are plenty of others who either watch their property destroyed or have gone to retrieve it only to find it’s not in storage as promised. Some homeless people manage to acquire new belongings, only to have the process repeated again—chased from their next dwelling and their property again destroyed.
“We have people who’ve lost everything they own two or three times since October of last year,” he says.
According to one of the complaints, items seized and destroyed include tents, furniture, clothing, blankets, medications, photographs, letters, and other items of personal value. This policy has been carried out during the winter months, when temperatures fell below 36 degrees “on several occasions.” One evening in December, an “extremely ill” Melissa (last name omitted) was forced to remove a tarp sheltering her from the cold and rain. Her property and that of other homeless residents was taken from shopping carts and destroyed. They weren’t offered alternative shelter, and Melissa ended up contracting pneumonia.
“The city is basically saying to homeless people you don’t have a right to live in Fresno if you’re not in a shelter. But there aren’t nearly enough shelters for the very large number of homeless people we have,” says Schneider. “We are thousands of beds short—for example, the shelter for homeless women has twenty-three beds and yet there are hundreds of homeless women.”
Schneider says the number of homeless per capita in Fresno is three times the national average. The city has officially adopted a “housing first” policy with an aim to get people into housing and provide wraparound services. But the number of available units falls far short of the need and so far the city refuses to look at interim solutions.