Christmas spirit vies with human nature in impoverished Fresno neighborhood

The Fresno BeeDecember 25, 2013 

The bleakest neighborhood in Fresno received the best Christmas present of all -- no child got killed on this special day for kids.

Things easily could have turned out otherwise amid the chaos, and may next year if events unfold in similar manner.

Hundreds of people down on their luck gathered Wednesday morning in various spots around the intersection of G Street and Ventura Avenue near downtown.

They were searching for Christmas joy. They were met by dozens of people who, full of seasonal generosity, did their best to provide.

The result was a collision of need, human nature and admirable impulses of a kind that increasingly worries a City Hall struggling with Fresno's poverty and homelessness.

This is the neighborhood of Poverello House, and officials there gave presents to youngsters who began arriving shortly after daybreak. By mid-morning, when 50 bins were empty, an estimated 1,000 toys had been distributed.

Members of peDal jUnkies, a bicycle club, arrived at a nearby dirt lot about this time to hand out a trailer full of free blankets. Nearly 400 were distributed in addition to countless cups of free soup and noodles.

Just as the last blankets disappeared, members of the Greater Harvest Christian Center of Fresno set up tables on a dirt lot a bit north of the bicyclists. A free lunch (baked chicken with all the fixings) and free winter clothes were on the menu.

Through it all, individuals periodically arrived in cars to play Santa Claus.

A woman gave brightly-wrapped presents to kids standing on the corner of F and Santa Clara streets.

A man walked up and down G, handing out new T-shirts with a motorcycle theme.

Somebody came by and tossed four Christmas trees on the sidewalk in front of the Renaissance at Santa Clara, the new $11 million apartment complex for the homeless.

The donors' sentiments were noble.

"We're blessed with all of the donations that came in," said Poverello House Executive Director Cruz Avila. "If it wasn't for the community and our team, this wouldn't be a reality."

Anthony "Tea" Gonzales, chief executive of peDal jUnkies, said this is the fourth year for the blanket give-away.

"I just want to show the world -- we have to stick together," Gonzales said. "That's what Christmas means to me."

Pastor A.C. Oliver of the Greater Harvest Christian Center said he and his church members couldn't sit at home on such a day.

Christmas, Oliver said, "means going out and doing the works of Jesus -- feed the hungry, clothe the naked. We want to do our part to help the community."

Such need in this part of town isn't limited to Dec. 25. The neighborhood is Fresno's ground zero for the homeless and the impoverished.

The Fresno Rescue Mission is a short walk south on G. Santa Clara and F streets not too long ago was site of Fresno's most notorious homeless encampment. Camps nearly as big were nearby on H Street and in what used to be Germantown.

The camps were razed by city officials who saw them as public-health hazards. City Hall is embarking on a two-part strategy: Get the homeless into permanent housing; spark the local economy to help the working poor.

But progress on such a huge challenge is slow. City officials in recent weeks have noticed a growing problem in the area of Santa Clara, G and F. Well-intentioned groups are distributing stuff -- mostly food -- to the needy in an impromptu manner. It's first come, first served.

This ad hoc distribution system is wreaking havoc on an area struggling to regain its stability, city officials say. Tensions build quickly when demand among the needy exceeds supply, they say.

The maintenance of public order is City Hall's job. City officials are laying low for now, saying they seek a solution through back-channel talks with officials at Poverello House and community groups. But, the officials add, they won't sit on the sidelines forever.

The spectacle of Christmas 2013 is a good hint of what scares City Hall.

Taken separately, each act of kindness on Wednesday was harmless. Security was out in force at Poverello House. The bicyclists set up traffic cones to make sure everyone got in single file. Church members in special T-shirts made sure the hungry knew where to go.

A police officer watched it all.

The problem was that each act of kindness -- whether by a group or someone acting alone -- had the effect of turning many of the destitute into a mob rushing from one site of generosity to another in a three-block area full of streets.

For example, Claudia Castillo said she got to Poverello House about 10 a.m. She had her seven young children and two of her neighbor's kids in tow. They arrived too late for gifts.

Castillo was not happy.

"I saw one kid with a big bag of presents," she said. "One kid -- one big bag. That's not fair."

The children weren't happy, either. Several had small gifts in hand. Castillo said the presents came from a woman in a car.

Dozens of other children and adults were milling around F and Santa Clara. Suddenly, someone shouted: "They're giving something away!"

The bicyclists had arrived with some dressed as Santa Claus, a trailer full of blankets and kettles of food. They were setting up shop on the east side of G, a block away.

Many -- but especially the children -- ran. They ran east on Santa Clara. They ran across G.

Castillo hurried after the children in her charge.

Amid the bedlam, she shouted to someone ahead.

"Grab the babies!"

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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