With Caltrans and city workers videotaping protesters, protesters videotaping police and the news media videotaping everyone, an operation to remove a homeless encampment in downtown Fresno appeared to stall Thursday – at least temporarily.
By Thursday afternoon, about 12 of 18 tents in the homeless encampment along Santa Fe Avenue south of Ventura Avenue under Highway 41 were still occupied by an undetermined number of people, Caltrans spokeswoman Gloria Rodriguez said.
The morning standoff stemmed from a city plan to dismantle the camp by today and take apart three other encampments by Nov. 7. The coalition of about 100 protesters, including members of Peace Fresno and Occupy Fresno, arrived early Thursday morning intent on stopping the effort.
The protesters, some shouting, "Whose Street? Our Street," appeared to win a temporary victory when a front loader and several trucks full of workers veered around protesters who were blocking access to tents and instead targeted a massive pile of debris nearby.
"Don't block him! Escort him out!" shouted one man near the tents as the front loader rumbled north on Santa Fe Avenue.
The camp clearing was delayed when a hazmat team didn't arrive until around noon. The delay was due to the department's scheduling, Rodriguez said. The company's work had to be completed before city and Caltrans workers could begin clearing the site.
The hazardous items collected included syringes and bottles of urine, she said.
The cleanup crew is expected to finish Friday as scheduled, but Caltrans will know sometime today whether more time will be needed, Rodriguez said.
Stan Santos, a homeless advocate, condemned efforts to remove the tents. "They have to go to the street," he said. "They don't have anywhere else to go."
Santos also told Gregory Barfield, the city's homeless prevention manager, that although the city plans to issue housing vouchers to help the homeless, those living in the encampment had not seen them. Barfield responded that the city is working to issue them.
The vouchers are for apartments provided by several local agencies that help the homeless, funded by federal funds and matching funds from Housing Authorities of the City and Council of Fresno, Barfield said.
Assessments were done at the end of July to determine which homeless people are eligible for housing, "but it takes time," Barfield said. Delays can happen if a homeless person has difficulty getting documents needed for eligibility – such as a doctor's signature on a certain form. "Without follow-up, we get nowhere fast," he said.
Homeless advocates and some homeless people wanted to meet with Fresno City Manager Mark Scott on Thursday to negotiate terms for clearing the camp. Scott was out of town on Thursday, said city spokesman Michael Lukens, and it was not clear by mid-afternoon if a meeting with another city official would take place.
But camp resident Dave Esqueda, 50, and his wife, Cathy, weren't waiting for advocates and city officials to work out the details. "We took our tent down last night," Dave Esqueda said. They've stored their possessions at a friend's house until they find another place to pitch their tent, he said.
The couple, whose two youngest children are in foster care, have been homeless for about two years. "We had a business and a home. We lost everything," Esqueda said as he carted off a makeshift wheelbarrow full of metal that they will recycle to get money for dinner.
Lorraine McCool and Shaun Smith, members of a Clovis Baptist church, came to the camp to say good-bye to the Esquedas. For more than a year, church members have come to the camp every Friday night to share their faith, and to feed and help the residents.
"It's a little sad and disappointing," Smith said. "We've been able to put a name to the face of homelessness instead of just driving by."