Fresno, Calif. law restricting access to homeless camps is wrong

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Beneath Highway 41 in downtown Fresno, homeless advocate Dez Martinez speaks Thursday, August 20, 2020 about the camp she set up, named Dream Camp by residents, to provide homeless residents with a safer and cleaner alternative to life on the streets.  The camp operated for a year;  Martinez closed it last fall.

Beneath Highway 41 in downtown Fresno, homeless advocate Dez Martinez speaks Thursday, August 20, 2020 about the camp she set up, named Dream Camp by residents, to provide homeless residents with a safer and cleaner alternative to life on the streets. The camp operated for a year; Martinez closed it last fall.

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During sweeps of homeless camps in Fresno, city workers show up early in the morning with heavy machinery and rush people out of the only shelter they have. These sweeps are chaotic and tense. People are scrambling to protect themselves and prevent their precious possessions from being ransacked. If the advocates, organizers and witnesses are not there, the sweeps can also be life-threatening.

Recently, city workers parked a dump truck inches from a tent with a woman still inside. A homeless advocate was there and managed to push the trucker back, then helped the woman calm down and bring her to safety. If the lawyer had not been present and able to intervene, the woman could have lost everything, been arrested or seriously injured.

We are the organizers of the homeless Fresno community who have experienced the trauma of encampment sweeps. We also serve as advocates and witnesses, documenting what happens during these sweeps and raising awareness of the city’s inhumane and even violent displacement.

Having watchful eyes like ours during a sweep keeps homeless people – our “street family” – safer.

When we are there, the city is in a hurry to provide alternative shelter, in accordance with the law. Its employees feel compelled to give people more time to pack precious family heirlooms as well as essential items like bedding, kitchen utensils, medicine, walkers and wheelchairs. And officers can be prevented from using force to remove people.

But local officials don’t want witnesses, including those directly affected by the sweeps, to see what they’re doing or hold them accountable. In February, the city passed a new law that subjects defenders, organizers and even journalists trying to document encampment sweeps to possible criminal penalties.

It creates a buffer around abatement activity, such as camp sweeping, that takes place on public property. Anyone who enters the prohibited zone “without express permission” from the city can now be charged with a misdemeanor or fined up to $250. The law went into effect on March 31.

This outrageously broad law is not only cruel and myopic; it is also unconstitutional. It violates the First Amendment right of the public and the media to observe, document, and protest government employees performing their duties in public places, as well as other rights protected by federal law and state.

That’s why we’re supporting a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Northern California Foundation and the California Homeless Union. We’re asking a federal court to stop Fresno from enforcing the law, giving the city cover to hide the abuses that regularly occur during sweeps.

Fresno is experiencing a severe housing crisis, limited shelter beds and a growing homeless population. Yet, instead of addressing root causes, city officials have long pursued policies of dehumanizing and criminalizing homeless people.

In 2006, a homeless group sued the city over some of these policies. They presented compelling testimony and photographs from attorneys and reporters that contradicted Fresno’s sanitized version of what city workers were doing during encampment sweeps.

A federal judge has ruled that Fresno’s practice of destroying the property of homeless people violates the Constitution. The court awarded the homeless residents $2.3 million and the city agreed to give notice and not immediately destroy the property. Without eyewitness testimony, the outcome would likely have been different.

Despite these promises, city workers are still destroying property, often with little or no notice. And with this recent targeting of lawyers, journalists and other sweeps witnesses, the city is doubling down on its past illegal behavior.

As members of the Fresno Homeless Union, we organize the collective strength of people in the encampments for safety, security and advocacy. We facilitate mutual aid, including food, walks and direct representation. And we defend those who are forcibly uprooted during sweeps.

Fresno’s unconstitutional cutback law threatens our ability to do this important, life-saving work.

With each passing day, thousands of people find themselves on a paycheck or in an emergency away from homelessness. By carrying out traumatic sweeps of homeless people – out of public view and without accountability to the community – without providing a safe place to go, the city is jeopardizing the rights of all and does nothing to address the affordable housing crisis.

We call on municipal authorities to immediately repeal this unjust law. Please support us; contact Fresno city officials now and insist that the law be repealed.

Dez Martinez is the founder of Fresno-based bands Homeless in Fresno and We are Not Invisible, and president of the Fresno Homeless Union. Rosemary Juarez-Deleon is a member of the Homeless Union. She and her husband currently have no permanent accommodation.

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