Fresno’s Tent Cities: 1 Down, 2 To Go

Posted: July 19, 2009 in Compassion, Goals, Government, Homelessness, Housing, Morality

In Fresno, California the first of three "tent cities" slated for dismantlement by city leaders has been officially closed.

At 9 a.m. this past Thursday, the last of its residents was moved off the property – which is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad – and the "gate was locked" an hour later.

City officials viewed it as a positive step forward in addressing Fresno’s homeless issue. In fact, they "celebrated" their success at having closed that specific tent city down.  

In most instances, I would be pointing out that those folks who were moved out of their tents were left with no other place to go – and therefore the actions of the city were less than humane. This time, however, there is a wonderfully positive twist to the story.

So let me give you a bit of background.

In January of this year, Fresno had a new Mayor sworn into office: Ashley Swearengin.

On May 25, Mayor Swearengin gave her "State of the City" speech and vowed to close down the tent cities within a six-week period. And, true to her word – the Mayor and the city’s homeless prevention and policy manager, Gregory Barfield, began working toward that goal

As a result, there is now one less tent city in Fresno.

Most of the cities I’ve read about, which go through the process of dismantling a "tent city," generally attempt to move the homeless into shelters – if they have them, and there are available beds – or just shoo the homeless along somewhere else. Then they pat themselves on the back saying that they are in the process of building "permanent housing for the homeless."

The problem is that building that housing takes time. In the meanwhile, the homeless are still left homeless.

Mayor Swearengin took a different – and proactive – approach to the situation.

Rather than just shuffling the homeless into shelters, or waiting for "homeless housing" to be built, she used pre-existing housing as a solution.

About a week ago, I wrote a post titled, When Does Homelessness Occur?

Near the end of the post I wrote,

"Let’s face it – an empty apartment does no one the slightest bit of good.

So many cities are trying to figure out how to get the funding to building permanent housing for their local area homeless. But, why worry about building from scratch when there are so many "empty" units which already exist?"

It’s highly unlikely that Mayor Swearengin or her staff have read this blog. So, I won’t foolishly claim any credit for her recognizing the practicality of using pre-existing housing as a solution to homelessness in her city.

All the same, it did give me a bit of satisfaction that someone else also saw that approach as a viable method to help the homeless become housed. More than that, it gave me a sense of hope; a hope that elected leaders in other cities might hear of Mayor Swearengin’s solution and perhaps give it a try.

In a Fresno Bee article from May 29, Mr. Barfield explained the city’s plans for the use of pre-existing housing, stating that the apartments in which the homeless would be placed would,

"… be at scattered locations to minimize effects on neighbors."

Although I completely agree with Mr. Barfield’s reasons for the "scattered locations," there is another reason why I consider the use of pre-existing housing as a far superior solution than building housing specifically designated as "housing for the homeless."

It has to do with the stereotyping and stigmatization of the homeless.

First of all, in those cities which are seeking to build housing for the homeless, potential neighbors are quite adamant about not having it built in their neighborhoods. As a result, local governments are spending more time dealing with the "public outcry" and trying to find someplace to build than they are in process of actually building.

Secondly, placing the homeless into housing which is labeled or viewed as "homeless housing" continues to segregate them from the rest of the community.

Personally, I believe that Fresno’s approach should be used as a model by other cities – especially those cities which have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, a "10-year plan to end homelessness."

As I stated in my other post: "… an empty apartment does no one the slightest bit of good."

To Mayor Swearengin, Mr. Barfield, and all of Fresno’s officials who have worked so diligently using a housing first – and humane – approach with regards to the closing of the tent city, I say:

Kudos.

May you have continued success in your efforts of ending homelessness in your city.

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