Anti-camping ordinance struggling to connect homeless to services

The ordinance, now in full force by Fresno police, is hitting a big barrier: a stubborn population of homeless unwilling and unconvinced of the need for social services.

Fresno’s new anti-camping law so far is one of those “glass half empty/glass half full” affairs.

Police auditor John Gliatta’s fourth quarter report shows that police officers are busy making sure people don’t camp illegally in the nooks and crannies of this big city.


Gliatta’s report also shows that officers aren’t having a lot of luck in convincing would-be campers (the homeless, vagabonds, nomads, rebels, criminals, etc.) to seek the kind of services that might change their lives.

The City Council late last summer passed a law introduced by Steve Brandau that prohibits certain types of camping. The law is called the Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act.

Remember when Downtown Fresno, from Ventura/G Street in the south to Divisadero/G in the north, was riddled with huge homeless encampments? Brandau’s act is designed to nip those in the bud. Same goes for the lone guy who builds a lean-to behind an abandoned building.

From the anti-camping law: “The purpose of this article is to maintain streets, parks and other public and private areas within the city in a clean, sanitary and accessible condition and to adequately protect the health, safety and public welfare of the community, while recognizing that, subject to reasonable conditions, camping and camp facilities associated with special events can be beneficial to the cultural and educational climate in the city. Nothing in this article is intended to interfere with otherwise lawful and ordinary uses of public and private property.”

The Police Department created a Homeless Task Force to put teeth in the law. Homeless advocates protested the law. Most Fresnans prayed the law would lead to a compassionate but lasting solution to Fresno’s homeless challenge.

Gliatta in his report notes that Mayor Lee Brand wants the police auditor to do more public outreach. That’s what Gliatta has done since he was hired in August (about the same time as passage of the anti-camping law).

“During a recent community outreach meeting,” Gliatta wrote in his report, “questions and concerns were raised regarding the activities of the FPD in regards to enforcement of the new city ordinance addressing unlawful camping. One community group member specifically asked what determines if the homeless individual is arrested or simply told he/she must relocate. To ascertain the guidelines the FPD officers are operating within, the OIR Community Coordinator, Maria Aguilar, and I met with Captain Burke Farrah, who oversees the team of officers assigned to enforce the new city ordinance.”

Farrah (who also is commander of the Northwest Policing District) said the Homeless Task Force consists of five officers, one from each policing district. All five are volunteers.

“Captain Farrah and the officers recognize (that) many of the homeless individuals are in their situation not by choice, but due to a drug dependency or mental issues caused by chemical imbalances,” Gliatta wrote. “Some of the same individuals also become crime victims at the hands of other homeless individuals. Reported crimes have included drug dealing, sexual assault, physical assault, and robbery.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom in some quarters, Gliatta wrote, the task force’s main goal is to connect the homeless with social services designed to transform their lives. Enforcing the letter of the ordinance, with its stiff penalties, is a secondary goal.

“If the officers discover signs of camping, such as bedrolls, stoves or make-shift bathrooms, the ordinance is enforced,” Gliatta wrote.

Farrah said task force officers on average pick up about one ton of trash per day from illegal campsites. The officers visit an average of 10 campsites per day, but have gone to as many as 25 in a single day.

All of the task force officers are outfitted with body cameras.

Wrote Gliatta: “Although many of the contacts have been without resistance, one individual did threaten to kill the officer and his family. The suspect was a three striker and eventually arrested. Thus the implementation of the cameras is a necessity.”

Police officers have three main sources of help to offer to illegal campers.

There is MAP Point at the Pov. MAP stands for Multi-Agency Access Program. The Pov, of course, is the Poverello House.

There is the Homeless Engagement Resource Outreach (HERO) team.

There is the Fresno Rescue Mission.

The Rescue Mission is open 24/7/365. The Rescue Mission is pivotal to Fresno’s “housing first” strategy for homelessness.

Gliatta’s report includes an excellent graphic listing the Homeless Task Force’s efforts in October, November and December. The graph shows that 535 “subjects” were contacted by officers in October, 442 in November and 470 in December. The number of subjects booked into Fresno County jail for warrants and/or open charges was 16 in October, 14 in November and 12 in December.

Only four camping ordinance citations were issued during the three-month period – two each in October and November.

How many subjects said they wanted to be taken to the Rescue Mission? Four in October, 16 in November, two in December – 22 total.

How many subjects simply went elsewhere when told by officers to move on? 490 in October, 409 in November, 470 in December.

Gliatta wrote: “The one category in the preceding table which may generate questions is the number of bookings into the Fresno County Jail. Captain Farrah advised only one person was arrested for violating the ordinance, and this was after days of warnings.”

Farrah told Gliatta that arresting someone who refuses to move along after being told to do so is PD’s last resort.

Gliatta wrote: “In fact, if an individual refuses to accept the assistance of one of the services, refuses to relocate, and is being transported to jail, the officers are told to turn around if the individual agrees to the offered assistance even if they have already reached the jail. It was apparent that Captain Farrah and his officers are passionate about helping the homeless and (are) not on a mission to solely arrest those in need of assistance.”

Cops and last-minute second chances – there’s a combo you don’t see every day.

  1. If ‘politics’ would allow this, here is what is needed in Fresno:
    Right now homeless people can’t take their dogs (often their only ‘family’) into shelter nor can they take their “possessions” (thought of as junk,garbage by many) Leaving ‘stuff’ at the entrance to the shelter equates to having possessions stolen. I guess it might be reasonable to ask, ‘if you were homeless and had a faithful dog companion and a cart full of ‘stuff’ that you would have to leave on the sidewalk in exchange for a bed and a night of sleep, would you agree to that kind of ‘help?’ The Alpha Project on San Diego runs a safe, organized low barrier camp where the homeless are allowed to ‘be’ so as to stabilize. No, they can’t bring drugs in but they are taken on a ‘come as you are’ basis. They can bring their dogs in and they can come and go throughout the day instead of being kicked to the curb in the early morning. Three Sprung Structures will house 675 homeless people in San Diego. This is the model that Steve Brandau announced on KMJ (breaking news) that he and members of the Mayor’s team along with Jerry Dyer were going to visit in San Diego. Expanding the services of the Poverello house would require some private sector funding as well as cooperation from the City and County of Fresno. Likely this will not happend here in Fresno as a result of layers of daunting politics and egos.

  2. Great post. This city can learn from other cities in or outside of CA. However, Fresno has a history of not following through with any good or bad ordinances. In the end we get a half baked lopsided bread. This is a sad outcome of poor and divided leadership at city hall.

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