Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless, a protest that happened on the night on September 29, was a show of support and unity for the homeless of Fresno in response to the “Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act” passed by Fresno City Council in August. More than 100 protesters gathered in front of City Hall and demanded solutions to homelessness in Fresno, asking for more services and fighting back against the ordinance that they believe is unconstitutional.
The ordinance, which affects homeless individuals who have to sleep outside, subjects violators to a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.
Protest organizer, Mike Rhodes has been a longtime advocate for the homeless and wrote a book about homeless in Fresno, “Dispatches from the War Zone”.
“We want keys, not handcuffs, for those in our community who are too poor to reside in an apartment or home,” Rhodes said. “The collective punishment of homeless people for the simple act of sleeping is not going to end homelessness.”
Organizers said they had an agreement with the Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and attorney Larry Donaldson, that if protesters were found camping they would be arrested, cited and released immediately. Protesters who chose not to camp were not in violation of the ordinance and were able to continue protesting.
Once the ordinance went into effect, police approached individuals camping, explained the ordinance and asked if they needed services related to housing, mental health or substance abuse treatment. Some accepted options to the Poverello House or the Rescue Mission.
Although more protesters were willing to be arrested, Dallas Blanchard was the only protester arrested and released immediately. After the arrest of Blanchard at about 3 a.m., officers left and protesters slept in front of City Hall.
“We were all stunned they left,” Rhodes said. “People were laying down in their sleeping bags waiting to be arrested.”
Brian Sumner, who was once homeless for a month, said he’s been arrested before at a protest and wasn’t afraid to get arrested again. “As exciting as it is to see 100 people here, the whole city should be here torches and pitchforks,” Sumner said.
“Everyone is one or two steps away from becoming homeless,” Sumner continued. “An illness, an injury, a financial disaster, everyone is so close to being homeless and they take it for granted.”
Sumner said he thinks arresting violators of the new ordinance will cost more than providing more shelter and health care services.
“They aren’t showing up to court,” Sumner said. “They aren’t paying their tickets. They have no incentive to show up to court because the system does nothing for them. Even if they want to show up for court they have no transportation.”
Andrea Freeman, currently homeless, said the city needs another plan to end homelessness.
“Jail is not the answer,” Freeman said. “They need a plan, it’s not just something that’s going away. They need to figure out what is it going to take to keep people from becoming homeless.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016, 1,883 people were homeless in Fresno/Madera County and 76% were unsheltered. With not enough beds for all the homeless in Fresno, protesters questioned why the city hasn’t allocated money to create additional places of shelter or provide more services.
Mario Manganiello said he thinks it is “ridiculous” that the homeless can get arrested because they have no place to go. Manganiello also protested the clearing of the homeless encampment under Highway 180 in 2013.
“They are going to get arrested, but they have nowhere else to sleep because they tore down all the encampments,” Manganiello said. “There are a couple places, but not enough to house the homeless.”
“We need a safe and legal place for people to stay at night,” Rhodes said. “One that has basic public services like drinking water, toilets, trash bags… everyone deserves that. It should be a human right.”
Rhodes said the vans and social service workers at the event were a public relations effort to convince people the city has enough room to house the homeless in Fresno.
“This is not true and not the reality,” Rhodes said.
Since the event, an attorney offering legal support contacted Rhodes. Rhodes and other organizers will use Blanchard’s case to challenge the no camping ordinance with the belief that it is unconstitutional.
“We will probably find other people have gotten arrested without having the opportunity to get housing or social services they need,” Rhodes said.
“This is not over,” Rhodes said, “As long as there is injustice and people’s human rights are being violated. There will be people fighting back.”