Homeless people eking out an existence along the banks of the San Joaquin River in urban Fresno have long been a problem. But some officials fear the city's efforts to close downtown encampments may be making the river bottom problem worse.
Now, with river bottom grasses tinder dry and illegal campers and the homeless setting more fires as nights turn cold, Fresno City Council Member Steve Brandau and Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas are worried that any fire could spread to nearby homes on the San Joaquin River bluffs.
"People are getting really nervous," Brandau said Monday. "At twilight, they can see the smoke."
Borgeas and Brandau, who represent the San Joaquin River bluff areas of northern Fresno, led a tour of the river bottom area near Palm and Nees avenues Monday afternoon to highlight some of the safety issues facing the area. Among them are illegal off-roading, gangs and shooting off guns, but the biggest problems are fires set by homeless people, and the trash they leave behind at their illegal camps.
Also on the tour were Madera County Supervisor Manuel Nevarez, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, and officers from Fresno police, the Fresno County Sheriff's Department and Cal Fire, as well as various staffers.
Anderson and Nevarez both said they hadn't seen the problems Brandau and Borgeas spoke of, nor have they had many calls about river bottom problems. A few came from the trailer park just across the county line in Madera County, Anderson said.
Borgeas acknowleged the rural nature of Madera's side of the river made for fewer problems, but still said a unified effort is needed to address the problem issues.
He'd like Madera County to adopt the San Joaquin River & Bluff Protection Initiative, which has been approved by both Fresno city and Fresno County. Madera County is still studying the initiative.
The initiative bans vehicles, overnight camping and fires and requires property owners to establish firebreaks. It also aims to sort through the complexities of managing a public-use area like the San Joaquin River Parkway, which crosses into multiple jurisdictions, including the city of Fresno, Fresno County, Madera County and state agencies.
"One jurisdiction alone can't solve the problem," Borgeas said.
Leading the tour was Richard Sloan with RiverTree Volunteers, a nonprofit that works to educate people about San Joaquin River issues.
Sloan said he's seen a slight uptick in homeless activity along the river since Aug. 26, when city officials removed structures on Santa Clara Street near Poverello House.
Last week, residents of a fourth Fresno homeless encampment were put on notice by the city that their property will be removed Wednesday.
But Sloan said the homeless camps along the river are always in flux. A tent can be in a spot one day and then gone the next, only to be replaced by a new one the following day. It makes it hard to tell how many are newcomers from downtown.
His feeling is that most urban homeless people can't hack it.
"Some of them, when they encounter the bugs, the ticks, the animals, they say 'Hey, this is not for us,' " Sloan said.
Still, volunteers have hauled out several shopping carts, especially around the Highway 41 bridge over the river.
Those urban homeless who can't endure the river environment may be retreating to affluent north Fresno areas, Brandau said. He's recently been made aware of homeless encampments at a shopping center at Herndon and Marks avenues, as well as an empty office complex at Herndon and Milburn avenues.
The savvy homeless, Brandau said, head out to islands in the river, which raise jurisdictional questions and usually result in them being left alone.
Sloan said patrols are limited to two Fresno city police officers on off-road vehicles. They "do a great job," he said, "but everyone knows they work 9-5 and are off every other weekend."
The biggest problem is overnight camping -- both homeless and otherwise.
"If we could get a grasp on removing the illegal overnight camping, we would probably eliminate probably 80% of the problems we see," Borgeas said.
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