Efficiency, uncertainty and grumbling were the norm as city crews on Monday began a three-week sweep through homeless camps in downtown Fresno.
City officials said they were satisfied with first-day cleanup efforts at the sprawling camp near the Poverello House on Santa Clara Street. Crews will return Tuesday to the three-block area that includes E, F and G streets.
Im very pleased with the progress so far, City Manager Bruce Rudd said. City workers have conducted themselves with the utmost courtesy.
Much of Mondays action focused on structures on F Street. Personal items were bagged, then tagged with the owners names. The plywood and tarps that had been transformed into sidewalk hovels over the course of months were hauled away in city garbage trucks.
The high-profile sweep, spurred by concerns for public safety, attracted plenty of video cameras operated by both sides in Fresnos long political struggle over homelessness. Central California Legal Services Executive Director Chris Schneider, a longtime homeless advocate, watched events unfold for nearly 30 minutes.
It would appear that the city is being a little more careful about labeling property and storing it, Schneider said. It seems, from what I saw, that property was preserved that in the past would have been destroyed.
I dont know what will happen when all of the observers go away.
Residents of the camp near Poverello House were notified about a month ago that the city would act to eliminate the makeshift structures after several violent crimes and fires occurred in the area. Police have made more than 200 arrests recently and seized firearms in the area.
Workers from the citys community sanitation division, the same people who do the popular neighborhood cleanup, were there in force. Police officers in plain clothes, several code enforcement officers and Rudd were on the scene.
The city plans to raze a camp at Los Angeles and E streets starting Sept. 3 and a camp at H Street south of Ventura Avenue starting Sept. 9.
City officials have said homeless camps are often plagued by gun-running, drug trafficking, prostitution and extortion of the truly displaced.
In past efforts to clear the camps, the city faced lawsuits from homeless-rights advocates. In an effort to prevent that this time, Rudd said videographers canvassed the area to document that residents were aware of the cleanup.
Rudd said the city also faces lawsuits from property owners if something is not done.
Georgia Williams of Fresno Homeless Advocates was on hand to monitor the citys actions.
The city is engaged in an unconscionable action against a group of people that has the least in our society, Williams said. All parties need to sit down and develop solid plans for the homeless.
There is a great diversity among these people. There are those with no education, and those with advanced degrees.
Breaking up the camps puts the former residents in danger because they are more vulnerable on their own, Williams said.
Some camp occupants said they knew where they will go after the tents were cleared out. Others were at loose ends.
I dont know, said Edward Jones, who lived in the area for two or three years.
I have no idea. I gotta go somewhere. Where do they expect us to go?
Jones said drugs and addiction landed him in the encampment.
A woman who identified herself as Latoya said she will probably move in with one of two relatives. She also said shes upset because promises from the city for an apartment didnt materialize. (It wasnt clear Monday what the circumstances were.)
Two themes were evident on Monday that figure to gain momentum as the sweeps continue.
The cleanup on F occurred in the shadow of the Renaissance at Santa Clara, an $11 million, 70-unit apartment complex built through a public-private venture. The tenants were once homeless, and the project is another example of a housing first strategy that counts Mayor Ashley Swearengin among its strongest champions.
But Fresnos immense homeless challenge figures to overwhelm limited housing funds for years to come.
Housing first is a good program, Schneider said. It works for those who are fortunate enough to get in. But there are hundreds who arent going to be able to get in. Until there can be something to get all the folks in, there needs to be some sort of interim plan. And thats what we see lacking here.
That interim step is often seen as designated homeless camps. City officials dont like the idea, saying experience shows such camps arent safe and clean as advertised. Rudd said officials from the Fresno Housing Authority will be at the Poverello House on Wednesday to help the homeless get a solid roof over their heads.
The cleanup efforts on Monday, partial though they were, also had an immediate effect on the neighborhoods ambience.
Shopping carts, filled to the top, sat in a row along a portion of F. They awaited only for their owners to push them to parts unknown.
A big tractor with powerful iron claws made short work of structures on F near Ventura. Wood, blankets and mattresses were devoured.
Four people watched it all from the yard of a house on F whose front porch once looked upon those structures and their tenants.
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