New book puts spotlight on this national tragedy
By Mike Rhodes
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.
Mike Rhodes is a journalist in Fresno, California. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.