ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Any day now, the city of Fresno plans to raze a large homeless encampment close to downtown. The poor, farm-dependent city in California's Central Valley has one of the highest per capita homeless populations in the country. In recent weeks, city officials there have dismantled three other sprawling shanty towns.
NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, getting rid of the camps has displaced hundreds of people and sparked controversy.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Fresno is one of the poorest places in America. One-in-four people here live below the poverty line and the recession only made things worse.
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SIEGLER: Underneath Highway 180, in the shadow of a large old grain silo, there's a tent city - dozens of makeshift dwellings with walls made of old tires, roofs of blue tarps. Worn mattresses lie precariously close to the train tracks and a dirty canal. The air is rank with garbage and urine.
CINNAMON: Come on pretty girl, come on.
SIEGLER: For the past three years, this has been home to Cinnamon and her two dogs.
CINNAMON: I don't have a last name.
SIEGLER: You don't have a last name?
CINNAMON: No. I don't have an ID either.
SIEGLER: She also hasn't had any income since her boyfriend lost his job when Fresno's construction boom went bust. After months of couch hopping, then moving from one abandoned place to the next, they settled here.
CINNAMON: It doesn't work. You can't do anything. Your stuff is getting stolen all the time. At least like this we have somewhat of a home base.
SIEGLER: But now this home base - the encampment that covers a couple acres - is slated for demolition. An eviction notice has just been posted on a telephone pole across the way.
CINNAMON: I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do. We have over 58 people here. And they expect us all to move all of the things we've had here for like two years, three years or more in two weeks, less than two weeks.
BRUCE RUDD: It's not something as a city manager you want to do, you like to do, but it's something that had to be done.
SIEGLER: City Manager Bruce Rudd says two of the encampments that were just taken down had populations that had swollen into the hundreds. They were lawless and breeding grounds for local gangs.
RUDD: Sometime in the month of June is when we started seeing fires occurring. We had a stabbing. And then we had two gunmen walk into the encampment at night, murdered an individual.
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SIEGLER: In the weeks since, city workers armed with backhoes and big brooms have dismantled three, sprawling homeless encampments.
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SIEGLER: For now, the plan is to use a million-dollar federal HUD grant to start providing rental housing assistance for those who have been displaced. So far, the city has found housing for about 60 people.
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SIEGLER: But hundreds more are roaming the streets of a tough neighborhood south of downtown. People are just hanging out. Some tents have started to pop up again just around the corner from where one encampment stood. It's near a freeway on-ramp.
WALTER JACOBS: We were the last ones to be razed.
SIEGLER: Here along F Street, Walter Jacobs has pushed his shopping cart full of things to the gutter. It's parked next to a line of about 30 other carts, a line that grows by the day. He says the cops roust him at 6 A.M. every day and tell him to leave.
JACOBS: Yesterday it was rough. It was very, very hot. And if I went one block this way, they popped up and told me to go back that way. You can't sit here, you can't sit there, you can't go here.
GEORGIA WILLIAMS: The appearance to me is that the city would like the homeless to disappear.
SIEGLER: That's Georgia Williams with the group Fresno Homeless Advocates. She says it's not realistic for the city to try and place troubled folks like Walter Jacobs into an apartment and expect them to just live a normal life right away. She wants to see the city set up safe and legal campgrounds; campgrounds with trash removal, clean water and port-o-potties.
WILLIAMS: We want to offer the city ways to think about homelessness, ways to deal with homelessness, that are something other than what they have been doing for the last 10 years or so in Fresno.
SIEGLER: The only thing most everyone can agree on is that the encampments have to go. Even many people who lived in them said they didn't feel safe there. Yet, city leaders like Bruce Rudd are cold to the idea of setting up a more permanent campground.
RUDD: Nor does anyone want to answer the questions, what do we do with the individuals who don't want to comply with whatever rules that are established? Now what?
SIEGLER: City Manager Bruce Rudd throws up his hands in defeat.
RUDD: This is a city that has no cash reserves. This is a city that's trying to stay out of bankruptcy.
SIEGLER: It's also a city where there's no sign that the homeless population will go down anytime soon.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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