Under Pressure, Calif. City Dismantles Homeless Encampments

The poor, farm-dependent city of Fresno in California's Central Valley has one of the highest per capita homeless populations in the country. City officials there are expected to dismantle a large homeless encampment on the outskirts of downtown any day now. NPR's Kirk Siegler tells host Arun Rath that advocates for the homeless are scrambling to find alternatives for the displaced.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Next, we're headed to Fresno, California. The city has one of the highest homeless populations per capita in the country. Fresno has been a poor city for a long time. But since the recession, the situation of the city's homeless has become even more wretched. Like a lot of places, Fresno was hit hard when the housing market collapsed. Large shantytowns covering several acres began to sprout up around downtown. Facing pressure to act, in recent weeks, city officials armed with brooms and backhoes began dismantling them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE)

RATH: The move is controversial. Hundreds of people have been displaced.

NPR's Kirk Siegler spent some time in Fresno reporting the story this past week, and he's here to talk with us about it. Kirk, set the scene for us.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, you know, a lot of cities are grappling with growing homeless populations. And really, Fresno is in the spotlight due to, you know, it sort of being at the breaking point. Homelessness there is very eye-opening. People in need are almost everywhere you look, especially in and around downtown. And it's a poor city, so there's not much of a safety net.

I went to one of the last standing encampments that the city hasn't taken down yet. I mean, these are like tent cities, worn tarps. Some places have wooden structures, walls made of old tires. They're dirty. I mean, these are not places where anyone should have to live, but, you know, you could see how they did provide some sort of structure for some people anyway. People are looking out for one another. It's a somewhat secure place for people to put their stuff.

RATH: That being the case, isn't it better just to leave it standing than to turn these people out? What's the problem?

SIEGLER: Well, there's a flipside. So as these things got bigger and bigger, they got more lawless. Local gangs started taking over some of these places.

I'm going to introduce you to a man named Paul Stack, who runs the Poverello House. It's a private shelter south of downtown Fresno. And one of the largest encampments used to be right outside the Poverello's gates. And he told me that by June, things had gotten completely out of hand.

PAUL STACK: Violence, we'd have fights breaking out like right here. We had a shooting at night right here on the corner. One guy got shot twice, didn't get killed. And then right down by the tree where the alley goes to the entrance for the women's center, some man got shot in the head and killed.

SIEGLER: So, Arun, Paul Stack told me, you know, it got to the point where clients who needed help at the shelter couldn't get in. His staff didn't feel safe with all this happening right outside. So the Poverello House and also police and some civic groups who were worried about the safety issue, but also the image of Fresno, they really got behind this movement pushing the city to act.

RATH: So what is the effect of all this? What's going to happen now?

SIEGLER: Well, the city is using federal money for now for rental housing assistance for some of the people who have been displaced. Officials told me that several dozen so far have gotten some sort of housing, people who did live in the encampments. But most people who lived in these encampments just really scattered to the blocks and vacant lots around where they used to stand. I mean, it's not like many people really have anywhere else to go.

On F Street outside the Poverello House, there are people pushing their shopping carts from one place to the next. This day, they're here. The next night, maybe they have to move to a block.

Among those people that I talked to in that situation is a man named Walter Jacobs. He told me that there's a general sense that the encampments really did have to go. I mean, they were too big, they were filthy, they were dangerous.

WALTER JACOBS: It's kind of like a fire, you know? It's going to (unintelligible). It needed to be done. But, you know, like all my - I just gave up arguing with them, and I let them take my property and put it in storage.

RATH: So, Kirk, we heard in your piece this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the city manager was just sort of throwing up his hands almost in defeat. Is there any solution to this awful situation?

SIEGLER: You know, there really isn't an easy answer. I mean, what do you do? One solution that is being batted around - or a proposal anyway that I heard from speaking with advocates for the homeless up there, they're pushing for the city to consider setting up what are called safe and legal campgrounds - at least that's what they're calling them. These are campgrounds with trash removal, access to clean water, maybe some sort of a safer zone that could be at least partially regulated.

But, you know, then again, who's going to pay for that? So this is, you know, this is a real problem, and it's only getting worse. And Fresno is certainly not unique in this area.

RATH: NPR's Kirk Siegler. Kirk, thanks for your time.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here.

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