Dispatches from the War Zone

 

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This book is currently available online at Amazon or directly from the author. If you want a signed copy, send $20 to: Mike Rhodes, P.O. Box 5706, Fresno Ca 93755. The $20 will cover the cost of the book, tax, postage and handling. I can accept PayPal and credit cards – contact me for details.
mikerhodes@comcast.net

Dispatches from the War Zone is also available at:

The Book Barn (in stock)
640 Clovis Ave in Clovis

Barnes and Noble (only available through their warehouse)
7849 N Blackstone Ave, Fresno


About the author and book:

Mike Rhodes is the author of Dispatches from the War Zone, homelessness in Fresno from 2002 – 2015. His extensive coverage of this issue, as editor of the Community Alliance newspaper, defended homeless people’s human rights and led to significant changes in public policy.

Rhodes was a key organizer in a 2006 class action lawsuit by the homeless against the City of Fresno. The $2.3 million settlement forced the city to stop bulldozing homeless encampments and compensated the homeless for their losses.

The ongoing coverage has exposed public corruption, identified the homeless issue as a vital concern in the community and highlighted alternative projects that provide the homeless with the dignity and respect they deserve.

After leaving the Community Alliance newspaper, Rhodes wrote Dispatches from the War Zone. For more information, see www.mikerhodes.us


 House Keys, Not Handcuffs

By Mike Rhodes

This photo was taken about 3 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless Rally at Fresno City Hall. These are some of the folks who stayed late into the night and risked arrest—the same position any homeless person is now in if they live in Fresno. Somehow, we prevailed and the massive contingent of police officers backed down. Photo by Richard Iyall, Cowlitz.
This photo was taken about 3 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless Rally at Fresno City Hall. These are some of the folks who stayed late into the night and risked arrest—the same position any homeless person is now in if they live in Fresno. Somehow, we prevailed and the massive contingent of police officers backed down. Photo by Richard Iyall, Cowlitz.

About 200 people went to Fresno City Hall on Sept. 29, 2017 to demand an end to the criminalization of the homeless, following the passing of a No Camping ordinance. The demand for house keys, not handcuffs, for the homeless was met by a large contingent of police who surrounded the protesters and threatened them with arrest.

Larry Donaldson, an attorney who is a City of Fresno liaison with the Fresno Police Department, mentioned several times that night that he was interested in charging us with conspiracy, which could have resulted in a $10,000 fine and one year in jail. All of this for having the audacity to challenge public policy at City Hall, which we thought was our First Amendment right.

The night ended rather well for the homeless and their allies, who only saw one person arrested and the entire group of police back down in the face of determined protesters. This is the story of how we prevailed, what lessons were learned and how this could lead to a legal challenge that ends the Homeless No Camping ordinance.

The Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event started rather late (9 p.m.) on a Friday evening and was scheduled to go until 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. The idea was for homeless allies to stand with their homeless brothers and sisters, risking arrest on the day the No Camping ordinance was implemented.

A statement issued about the purpose of the event stated that Fresno needs “a safe and legal place where homeless people can go 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Homeless people need a place to go and the same basic public services that everyone else in this city has—drinking water, a place to go to the bathroom and trash bins. In short, the homeless need to be treated with dignity and respect, because they are our brothers and sisters and in some cases our mothers, fathers or children.”

The statement continues, “But having a safe and legal place to go is not enough. After we establish enough safe and legal places that are available to the homeless, we need to start finding them permanent housing. We also need to provide the resources for whatever social services they need. That might include, but is not limited to, job training, education, recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and mental health services. Every situation is unique, but every homeless person can live a healthier and happier life if we pull together as a community and provide the resources needed to end homelessness.”

Tim Kutzmark, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno, spoke to the protesters who were risking arrest. As the event was getting started, he said that “civil disobedience is OK in the face of injustice and wrongdoing.”

Kutzmark said that “you stand in the shadow of Gandhi. Things only change when Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and so many others said no to unjust laws and they broke those laws; they risked arrest. They put their bodies on the line to say no to what is wrong.”

Participants at the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless rally listen to a speaker as the event gets started. Photo by Brandi Nuse-Villegas.
Participants at the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless rally listen to a speaker as the event gets started. Photo by Brandi Nuse-Villegas.

Abre’ Conner, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Fresno, talked about how the Homeless No Camping ordinance is criminalizing the homeless and how that is unconstitutional. The ACLU and other legal groups in Fresno are looking at the ordinance to determine the best way to legally challenge it.

Carolyn Phillips, a local attorney in Fresno, conducted a Know Your Rights presentation for the homeless and others risking arrest. Desiree Martinez, director of homeless in Fresno, talked about the important work her group is doing to help the homeless and then introduced several homeless speakers who told us about their lives and how the ordinance would affect them.

Before the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event got started, Fresno Police Captain Burke Farrah contacted me (I was one of the main organizers of the event) and strongly encouraged us to get a permit. If we got a permit, which they would move heaven and earth to give me, that would make this a legal event and I was told there would be no arrests. Farrah even suggested they would help get portable toilets and maybe even a big movie screen. Who knows, maybe we could all sing Kumbaya together.

It could have been a big love fest, except then we would not be facing the same threat that the homeless face every day. The threat of arrest for the simple act of sleeping. I told Farrah that I would accept a permit because we did not want to get arrested and we did not want the homeless arrested, but he would need to extend the date of the event from one day to one year. His response was that “getting a one-year permit would effectively turn City Hall into an encampment zone. We can’t do that.”

When I asked if he could help us find an acceptable location for the portable toilets, he was no longer Mr. Nice Guy. “I do not anticipate the City allowing uninsured equipment placed on city property for an unpermitted demonstration where the intention of the participants is to break the law. A legal option has been rejected; I do not expect the City to facilitate an illegal option.”

The police and the city wanted the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event to be permitted so bad that they ended up asking one of the social service providers they work with to get a permit on our behalf. An interesting suggestion seeing as how difficult the city has made it for some groups, such as the Pride Parade in the Tower District, to get a permit. The social service provider decided not to be the city’s patsy.

All the threats and intimidation came to a head as the speakers at our event were finishing up. Donaldson told one of our legal observers that the police were planning to enforce the No Camping Ordinance at 12:01 a.m., which was about two hours away at the time.

Until that moment, we had not been told to expect arrests. I certainly thought there was a good chance that the police would not arrest anyone at the event. At 12:01 a.m., nothing out of the ordinary happened. Although there were a lot of police everywhere, they were not taking any steps to immediately arrest us. They had an extremely bright light on us from across P Street on the Mariposa Mall. It was similar to a light used to light up a football field. I would estimate that there were 50 officers monitoring the situation.

At about 1:30 a.m., Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer walked across the street with a group of officers and started talking to people at our event. He said that he was assessing the situation and would decide what to do after he was done.

At the end of his tour, Dyer made some remarks that suggested arrests were imminent. I walked across the street to meet with him. I informed Dyer that we needed time to discuss our options, and he said that was fine. I asked what charges we would face if we did not leave or have them take us to the Poverello House or the Rescue Mission. Dyer said the charge would be that we violated the No Camping Ordinance (a possible $1,000 fine and six months in jail). Donaldson said that it could be conspiracy too. He said that if two people conspire to violate…blah, blah, blah. I turned to Dyer and said “the No Camping Ordinance” and he said “yes.” I asked him about the process. He said that his officers would approach one of our people and ask them to move on. If they refused to move on, they would be offered social services or a bed at a homeless shelter. If those options were refused, we would be arrested.

I challenged his decision to arrest us, saying that arresting us for an alleged violation of the No Camping ordinance, which is a misdemeanor, was up to him—he could do it or not. He said he had no choice. One of the other officers said they can’t discriminate about who they arrest. The officer said, “We can’t let you go and then arrest people in other parts of the city for this crime.” I said that it was my understanding that nobody at City Hall was pushing him to arrest us and in fact I don’t think they want us arrested. I said that he knows as well as I that this is a political protest, we are at City Hall to voice our opposition to the ordinance and that he does not have to make the decision to arrest us. He said he had decided that he can’t allow the current action to continue. Donaldson stood by and nodded in agreement.

I then moved on to the process of the arrest. I said that they should just issue a citation and release us on the spot. He said the problem with that is that “what if people don’t leave?” I asked him what would happen if they stay after getting a citation. He said they would be taken to the Fresno County Jail. I told Dyer that I would let the group know. I confirmed that this would be a citation for a violation of the No Camping ordinance. Again, he said “yes.”

I walked back to our group of protesters and explained what Dyer had told me. My position at that time was that we should try to come to an agreement about what to do and have as many people as possible stick together with a common strategy. Some people felt we made our point and did not think getting arrested was going to further the cause. Then, one of the young activists said, yeah, but if we go to the Poverello House or the Rescue Mission that will be a huge public relations victory for them. They have put everything in place to accommodate us at a shelter tonight, this will not typically be the case, but it will seem to prove their argument that there is adequate shelter space in Fresno. That is what convinced most of the people at the meeting to stay and risk arrest.

With only a handful of shelter beds available on any given night, the thousands of homeless people on the streets of Fresno simply do not have the option of going to a shelter. The No Camping ordinance effectively criminalizes the homeless for the act of sleeping, which is essential to life. If you don’t sleep, you die.

Our decision to stay was communicated to Dyer, and 15–20 officers crossed the street heading straight for the three or four people who were sleeping. We had tried unsuccessfully to wake them and make them a part of our conversation. The police are more persuasive in waking people up. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I think the police officers were pretty much going by the procedure they explained—ask them to leave, if they don’t leave offer them services and if they refuse they would be arrested. All the sleepers got up and either left, joined us or opted for a shelter bed.

Next, the police approached Dallas Blanchard who was lying under a blanket on the grass. They told him he was in violation of the No Camping ordinance and asked him to move on. He said that “it is an illegal and immoral law.” They asked him if he needed social services or a place to sleep, and he said that the city did not have enough shelter beds for all the homeless. They asked him again if he would leave, and when he refused they arrested him.

Dallas Blanchard was arrested for laying on the grass at City Hall, protesting the Homeless No Camping ordinance. Photo by Richard Iyall, Cowlitz.
Dallas Blanchard was arrested for laying on the grass at City Hall, protesting the Homeless No Camping ordinance. Photo by Richard Iyall, Cowlitz.

They took Dallas across the street, issued him a citation and he was released within 10 minutes. After that, the police shut down the big light, got in their cars and roared off. There was nothing left for us to do but talk about what had happened and try to get a few hours’ sleep.

The successful civil disobedience of the protesters could lead to a legal challenge of the Homeless No Camping ban. There are constitutional challenges that can be made as well as procedural reasons why individual arrests can be invalidated. If you are homeless and believe your rights have been violated, let us know. My contact information is below.

We also want to know what happens when homeless people are picked up and taken to Map Point or to social service agencies. Are you getting the help you need or getting the runaround?

Groups such as Food Not Bombs, Homeless in Fresno, the Dakota EcoGardens and the Sleeping Bag Project will continue their important work helping the homeless. Other allies will continue struggling against the No Camping ordinance and demanding that their homeless brothers and sisters are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.


Homeless No Camping Update

 Desiree Martinez interviews Jerry Mulford about the Homeless No Camping ordinance.
Desiree Martinez interviews Jerry Mulford about the Homeless No Camping ordinance.

The police made their first arrest of a homeless man under the No Camping ordinance one week after the Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless event described in the article above. Jerry Mulford was arrested in front of the Poverello House, a social service agency for the homeless in downtown Fresno. According to Mulford, after his arrest, most of his property was taken and immediately destroyed by city workers.

In an interview with Desiree Martinez (see photo), who is with the group Homeless in Fresno, Mulford said that before he was arrested a police officer asked if he needed assistance with social services. This is a part of the procedure the police say they will use before making arrests. First, they ask the homeless person to move on and then they ask if the person would like to go to Map Point, which is a homeless intake program.

In the interview with Martinez, Mulford said he told the officer that he goes to Map Point almost every day, but they have not been able to help him get off the streets. Because there is no safe and legal place in Fresno for homeless people to go, the inevitable result was that Mulford was arrested and taken to jail. He was released later that day, but with most of his property destroyed and the rest taken by city workers, he was in a much worse place than he was before his encounter with the police.

This arrest exposes some of the flaws of the No Camping ordinance. Arresting homeless people who have no place to go and who can’t get help from social service agencies is expensive and not helpful. With a minuscule number of shelter beds available in Fresno each night and thousands of homeless people on the streets, the ordinance is symbolic of the cynical manifestation of the “tough love” policy at City Hall. Making homeless people’s lives more difficult and miserable is not going to end homelessness.

What homeless advocates have also found out is that the ordinance is being used by the police as a reason to stop homeless people and run a background check on them to see if they have any outstanding warrants. That is when those unpaid citations for jaywalking, littering or other nefarious crimes are used to further threaten and intimidate them.

Fortunately, there is a legal team looking at challenging the ordinance based on both its implementation and how it is violating homeless people’s constitutional and human rights.

Here is a link to the Desiree Martinez and Jerry Mulford interview:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pgre4bwpQvI

Attacks against the Homeless Turn Fresno into War Zone

New book puts spotlight on this national tragedy
By Mike Rhodes

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Did the City of Fresno really use federal money intended to help the poor and bulldoze homeless encampments with it? Why was it necessary for a federal judge to order the city to stop violating homeless people’s constitutional rights? Was the Fresno Police Department complicate in the death of Pamela Kincaid, the lead plaintiff in the homeless class action lawsuit against the city? And how did corrupt city officials scam the Housing First program to enrich a developer with close ties to City Hall?

The publication of Dispatches from the War Zone: Homelessness in Fresno 2002–2015, is the culmination of more than a decade of my reporting on the homeless issue in Fresno, mostly for the Community Alliance newspaper. Much of the information comes from articles previously published, but a significant amount is new and is from California Public Records Act requests, recent interviews and research.

You will read about the relentless attacks against the homeless in this city, the fightback that has taken place and what needs to be done to end homelessness. This book takes all of the fragmented pieces of the story and combines them into a narrative that gives a complete picture of the drama that took place in Fresno, California over the last 14 years.

Perhaps the most disturbing incident reported in the book details Pamela Kincaid’s death in the midst of the class action lawsuit in Federal court. An excerpt:

In July 2007, Kincaid was living with her boyfriend Steve in a vacant lot on Mono Street, just east of R Street. According to an interview I had with Steve, the two of them started walking toward a store on Ventura Street when they saw an FPD patrol car cruise by, turn around and pull up beside them. This is not unusual if you are living on the street. The police are always stopping homeless people and asking them for their ID, running their names through the database and seeing what comes up. It is like fishing. Every so often, the police catch someone who is in violation of parole, has an outstanding warrant or for some other reason is being looked for by law enforcement.

According to Steve, the police officer checked both his and Kincaid’s IDs and let them go. As they were leaving, a group of six or seven people (at least one them Steve identified as being a drug dealer) walked by and went to the police car. Steve said that he looked back and saw the officer pointing at him and Kincaid while the officer talked to the group. Kincaid decided to stay at her encampment, and Steve continued on to the store. Feeling something might be wrong, Steve returned (without going to the store) to see four of five women from the group that had approached the police car savagely beating Kincaid.

Steve said, “Pam is on the ground and one of them has these boot heels, you know like these dress boots, you know what I’m talking about? With the big heels? And they are just…” (Steve jumps up and down as if stomping something on the ground.) According to Steve, they were saying, “Drop the suit, drop the suit, you’re hurting us, you’re hurting them, now we’re hurting you.”

Kincaid was admitted to the Community Regional Medical Center (CRMC) on July 13, 2007. The nurse who attended to Kincaid said she was black and blue from the waist up. “It was clear that Pam had been beaten,” the nurse told me. The police report issued at the time she was admitted to the CRMC was vague. The police report suggests that Kincaid had a bad sunburn, might have a mental illness and did not want to press charges.

I didn’t find out that Kincaid was in the hospital until about a week after she was admitted. She was still black and blue, and it did not look like she had sunburn to me. She was clearly disoriented. Her attending physician, Dr. Arman Ossia, told me that Kincaid did not know what city she was in or what year it was. He explained that she had subdural hematoma, which causes swelling inside the skull, and the pressure can cause the disorientation and delusions she was experiencing. He was cautiously optimistic that she would regain her memory.

After Kincaid was at the CRMC for more than a week, it was agreed that she needed to move to more long-term care. But without insurance or any resources, the options were limited. The University Medical Center (UMC) was one of the few long-term care facilities that would take Kincaid. On the day before she transferred to the UMC, I talked to her nurse again. She told me that Kincaid was starting to remember what had happened and said that the attack had to do with the lawsuit against the City of Fresno.

Kincaid was relocated to the fourth floor of the long-term care facility at the UMC. At about 1:30 a.m. on August 1, 2007, she went through the doors to a balcony and fell four floors to her death. The doors to the balcony were supposed to be locked and had alarms. The alarms would have alerted staff if anyone opened them. Somehow she got through those doors and went over the balcony to her death. The Fresno Police Department did not investigate that incident either.

Even with the death of the lead plaintiff, the homeless won their lawsuit against the City of Fresno. They received a $2.3 million settlement to compensate them for what they lost during the repeated bulldozing of their homes. Before long, city policy had shifted and began focusing on Housing First. They continued to bulldoze homeless encampments, but began using new tactics, like forming a homeless task force within the police department. That task force issued a huge number of citations, enforced a draconian no camping policy and worked with city sanitation workers to remove homeless people’s property.

Another excerpt from the book:

City elected officials carry out these attacks against the homeless so they can maximize the federal dollars they are entitled to receive. That money allows them to get rid of some of the most visible manifestations of homelessness, like the encampments, but does nothing to end homelessness. Swearengin has even figured out a way to spin Housing First to the media to make the public believe there are fewer homeless in Fresno, enrich her developer friends and have some of that money end up as campaign contributions in support of her political ambitions.

This is what Swearengin and her political allies were able to accomplish with the opening of their premier Housing First project, the Renaissance at Santa Clara.

I went to the grand opening of the Renaissance at Santa Clara in November 2012. The $11 million project was built to provide 69 units (340 square feet each) to help end homelessness in Fresno. If you do the math, that is more than $159,000 per unit.

Opening the Renaissance created the illusion that progress is being made to end homelessness, while leaving the overwhelming majority of homeless people still on the streets. I was struck by this realization at the grand opening. Hundreds of homeless people were outside on Santa Clara Street, in the cold, while the “dignitaries” and “city leaders” were patting themselves on the back and congratulating each other for a job well done. While awards were handed out under a heated canopy, the homeless simply stood on the other side of the barbed wire uninvited to the celebration.

As the “love fest” among the politicians, developers and the well-connected Fresno elite was taking place, I kept thinking to myself, “Why did they spend $11 million to get a mere 69 people off the streets.” I asked Barfield, the city’s homeless czar, what was next. Because Barfield and other city representatives say that projects like this are their solution to ending homelessness, I expected more of an answer than I got. Both Barfield and a representative from the Fresno Housing Authority told me that they had no future plans to construct housing to help the homeless. Nothing. Zip. Nada.

One revelation that caught my eye in the financial information that I received from the Fresno Housing Authority was that the Penstar Group was awarded the contract to build the Renaissance at Santa Clara project. Tom Richards is chairperson and CEO of the Penstar Group, a Fresno-based development company. Richards was also the chairperson of the committee to develop the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and is the chairperson of Fresno First Steps Home, a nonprofit the mayor set up to privatize assistance to the homeless. The Penstar Group was awarded $1 million as the consultant on the Renaissance at Santa Clara project.

I’m impressed that the ruling elite in Fresno has figured out how to create the illusion that it is ending homelessness, while at the same time enriching political allies who use the same money to further the career of Republican Mayor Swearengin as she aspires to higher political office. Richards, for example, made a major contribution to Swearengin’s campaign for State of California Controller in 2014 and other Penstar employees made significant contributions to the mayor’s 2012 mayoral campaign. The hutzpah, if not downright corruption, is breathtaking.

It is clear to me that homelessness is a manifestation of a political and economic system that is not meeting people’s needs. Understanding that landscape of the shredded social fabric of this city will make you better prepared to envision and implement the changes needed to transform your city into the great community it can be. A city where all people are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Dispatches from the War Zone is available online from Amazon or you can send $20 (which includes tax, shipping and handling) to: Mike Rhodes, P.O. Box 5706, Fresno Ca 93755.

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Mike Rhodes is a journalist in Fresno, California. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.