The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

by Mike Rhodes

Homeless activists in Fresno bravely block a bulldozer from destroying a homeless encampment. Mike Rhodes photo

On November 22, 2006, the City of Fresno was ordered to stop taking and immediately destroying homeless people's property. U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, citing the 4th, 5th, and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, issued a preliminary injunction against the City of Fresno. Judge Wanger said, "People cannot be punished because of their circumstances. They can't be deprived of their constitutional rights."

A lawsuit filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the ACLU, and the law firm of Heller Ehrman, LLP, claims that the City of Fresno is violating the constitutional rights of homeless people by destroying their property. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six homeless plaintiffs, and charges that the Fresno Police Department and the City Sanitation Department have bulldozed homeless encampments and discarded residents' belongings as garbage.

In his ruling, Judge Wanger said the City of Fresno has no written policy on how to deal with homeless people during police sweeps. He said Fresno Police Officer Rey Wallace had created this policy out of whole cloth and his policy has transmogrified homeless people's property into trash.

Judge Wanger said Officer Wallace has a "woefully mistaken understanding of the law," and that it is dishonest and demeaning to identify someone's property as trash. Concluding that the Constitution of the United States is on one side and the City of Fresno's need to clean up a street is on the other, Wanger issued a preliminary injunction that stops the City of Fresno from taking and immediately destroying homeless people's property.

Throughout the hearing, Fresno police officers, city workers, and the city manager testified that it was their policy to notify residents of homeless encampments, orally and in writing, that a "clean-up" was going to take place. The position of city employees was that if they notified homeless encampment residents of the date and time of the clean-up, they could then come in with bulldozers and a garbage truck, declare everything in the area that remained as trash, and destroy it.

City workers claimed that they would never destroy property if it was in someone's possession. On the last day of the hearing, it was revealed that this policy was the creation of Officer Rey Wallace. He described the policy as an "out of the box" creative solution to the problem created by homelessness in Fresno.

Homeless people, in their testimony before the court, said they had not received notice of impending police sweeps and that their possessions are not trash. They described losing medicine, clothing, blankets, tents, and other irreplaceable items. One person had an urn, with her granddaughter's ashes inside, destroyed by a police raid. This happened as the person begged city workers not to destroy her property.

After four days of hearings, Judge Wanger determined that the law provides for the homeless to have their property rights protected. The preliminary injunction will be in place until a lawsuit on this issue is resolved by the court. A conference to set up a court date for the lawsuit will be held in February 2007.

About 20 homeless people attended the court hearing on the last day and were exuberant upon hearing news of the victory. In an impromptu meeting in the hallway of the court, they thanked the attorneys and dubbed them "the dream team."

The courtroom was filled with homeless people and their allies on November 7, 2006, when the first witness, Liza Apper, began to testify. Apper works with the Saint Benedict Catholic Worker. She has been a homeless advocate for many years and has put herself in front of bulldozers to protect homeless people's property.

Apper spoke about the May 25, 2006, incident when she stopped a bulldozer from destroying a tent. The police ordered Apper to move, but she held her ground. The bulldozer eventually moved around her and destroyed other shelters. After the threat from the bulldozer was gone, Apper said that a man came out of the tent. He had been asleep and unaware of the danger.

Apper said that Fresno was exceptionally hostile to homeless people. James Betts, the attorney representing the City of Fresno, objected repeatedly and attempted to limit Apper's testimony. Apper said Fresno was in the top ten of U.S. cities which are hostile to the homeless.

She estimated that there were 4,000-8,000 homeless people on the streets of Fresno and that there are very few shelters where a homeless person can find a bed. The City of Fresno, in a report called "The Consolidated Plan," stated that there are 8,824 homeless. Apper said the Fresno Rescue Mission (for men only) has between 120-150 beds, the Poverello House has 22 tool sheds that sleep two people each, and that the Naomi House (for women only) has 24 beds.

Jim Connell, executive director of the Poverello House, was the next witness. He described the period leading up to the police raid by saying "the Poverello House was getting complaints, there was verbal harassment of people coming to visit our facility, sanitation problems, and there were needles and syringes on the ground."

In late 2003 or early 2004, Fresno Police Captain Gardner called a meeting of social service groups to come up with a solution to the Santa Clara encampment. Connell said that Captain Gardner told the group he would not clear the street until someone stepped forward and set up additional housing for the homeless.

According to testimony, Connell was the only person at the meeting to agree to set up more shelter space. The agreement was to use a piece of land, recently purchased by Poverello House, and set up a tent city. This has turned into the "Village of Hope" with 44 beds in 22 tool sheds.

Connell described the Village of Hope as a self-governed community that provides for its own security, has its own council, and votes members in and out. He complained that the occupancy rate in the tool sheds over the summer of 2006 was only about 50-60 percent. He then used that figure to argue that any homeless person that wants a bed has one available.

Connell did not mention that these tool sheds get extremely hot in the summer or that residents must leave by 7:30 a.m. and can't come back until the evening. Other problems cited at the Village of Hope are random searches of people's property and the similarity to the TV show "Survivor" -- where people who are not liked are voted out of the community by the elite.

When asked how often he has been in the homeless encampments around the Poverello House, Connell said that he has walked through them maybe six times. Connell has worked at Poverello House 16 years and has only walked outside where the encampments (and the homeless) are located, about six times. Homeless people and their allies in the courtroom gasped at the admission. Connell also said he was unaware of current activities in the area because he has just returned from a vacation in Europe.

The level of hostility Connell has against the homeless residents who refuse to subject themselves to the discipline of his Village of Hope became more apparent as he was challenged on his perception of whether or not the homeless are being treated in a compassionate manner by the police. Connell said, "Captain Garner has shown compassion and patience in his work with the homeless. Officer Wallace is exceptionally compassionate."

Yet, Connell testified it is compassionate to throw away homeless people's property if they are not present when it is destroyed. ACLU Attorney Michael Risher asked Connell if it would be compassionate to throw away a bicycle that was leaning against a fence. "Yes," was the reply. How about a shopping cart with someone's property inside? "Yes."

During the second day of hearings on November 16, Larry Arce, the CEO of the Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in downtown Fresno, was called as a witness in support of the city's policy. Arce said that his agency does the same thing. "We clean the street in front of the Rescue Mission every day and throw everything away that is left behind."

When asked if they would throw away someone's property if a homeless person had left it in a cart in front of the mission while they got a meal, Arce said, "if someone leaves their property in front of the Fresno Rescue Mission, they have no sense." Arce said they have thrown away many shopping carts full of homeless people's possessions in the last several years.

The hearings positioned the institutional homeless service providers, such as the Rescue Mission and the Poverello House, as supporters of the city's policy of destroying homeless people's property. Paul Stack, Poverello House facilities manager, said the homeless set up a large encampment on Santa Clara Street, right in front of Poverello House, in 2003/2004. Stack said they received complaints about the encampment from visitors and donors who came to their facility.

Testimony by the homeless community tells a different story. Sandra Thomas said she had her property destroyed on June 22, 2006, after being told it would be safe by Police Officer Rey Wallace. Thomas said she moved her four shopping carts from the west side of E street to the east side because of an impending raid. Thomas asked the homeowner and Officer Wallace if she could safely leave her carts on the public sidewalk in front of a house. She was promised her carts would be safe.

She then left for a short time to take a shower at the Poverello House. When she returned, all but one of her carts were gone, crushed in the back of a garbage truck. Dramatic video of the incident was shown in the courtroom.

The video showed Thomas's cart being picked up by sanitation workers and tossed into the garbage truck. Thomas cried as she told the court what was in the carts. "I lost my ID, my grandmother's diamond wedding ring, Social Security paperwork, clothes, and blankets," she said. Afterwards, "I had no place to sleep, no blankets, and I caught pneumonia."

Doug Deatherage was also affected by the attack on the homeless on June 22. He said he was told on the day of the attack that it would take place. He and his fiancee, Pamela Streeter, gathered all they could and took it to the east side of the street. Deatherage went to the grocery store while Pamela stayed with their possessions.

When he got back, Pamela was crying and everything was gone. Deatherage said, "We lost shoes, clothes, my antique stamp collection, letters and photos from my family, and worst of all, Pamela had an urn with her granddaughter's ashes. We lost everything." Deatherage said the city sanitation workers took their property over Pamela's protest.

Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno.

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