Tents littered the front lawn of Fresno City Hall on Friday night in a protest of the new camping ban that went into effect at midnight.
Just as the protest was getting started around 9 p.m., about six police officers on motorcycles approached the crowd, with two driving up the sidewalks, angering some protesters who said it was intimidating and unnecessary.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer was also on hand to watch the campers. “We do have an ordinance in the city that does not allow for camping,” he said.
One person, Dallas Blanchard, was arrested and cited by Fresno police around 3 a.m. Saturday for sleeping on the grass, according to Mike Rhodes, who organized the demonstration. He was surprised that no other citations were given.
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Rhodes said police officers had “completely surrounded” the group who spent the night. By 2 a.m., the officers moved in and began giving notices to leave to those laying on the grass, he said. But that did not scare off the protesters completely, many of whom stood around and were willing to risk getting cited.
“We own City Hall and were there to address a grievance with a policy,” Rhodes said.
He said some people went to their cars to grab blankets or sleeping bags and laid on the grass while a bright light was shined on them and police watched from across the street. By 3 a.m., the officers had packed up and left. The protesters, about 20 of them, remained until close to 8 a.m.
The overnight demonstration gave the activists a chance to see how police would implement the camping ordinance. Rhodes considered the operation by police on the first night of enforcement a test for how officers will enforce the rule in coming weeks and months.
As for the lone citation, Rhodes expects Blanchard to challenge it in court. No other protests are planned against the ordinance.
Protester brings family
Earlier in the evening, as protester Steve Popenoe set up his tent, his children played nearby.
Popenoe, who said he lives near City Hall and who came with his wife and friends, said he was shocked by the new law. “The stated purpose seemed to be to stop defecation on the streets, things like that,” he said, “but there’s already laws against all those things.”
Popenoe said his wife and kids went home before midnight, and his son told him he was worried. “I’m a little worried, too,” said Popenoe, who said he works with homeless people at his church. He said it was worth the risk of getting cited or arrested because the ban puts people at risk when they don’t have anywhere else to turn.
Popenoe said he thinks the City Council created the law out of frustration after getting calls from business owners.
“We can still address the issue, but I hope the message gets out that this is not smart,” he said.
Rhodes said the ordinance is not going to end homelessness, but just punishes them and makes their lives more difficult.
He said instead of getting the homeless what they really need – shelter, drinking water, restrooms and trash bins – the city created more laws to criminalize them. “There was the anti-panhandling ordinance, a law forbidding the homeless to push shopping carts, the rule preventing them from being on median islands; they are currently shutting down recycling centers and now the homeless no-camping ordinance,” he said. “We want house keys, not handcuffs for those in our community who are too poor to reside in an apartment or home.”
Rhodes said social services like job training, education, mental health services and drug/alcohol addiction recovery are also needed. “We need a safe and legal place where homeless people can go 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Misdemeanor to camp
The law makes illegal camping a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail. Alternately, illegal campers can opt to allow police to take them to MAP Point, a multiagency clearinghouse for housing, shelter, health and social services based at Poverello House, instead of having their belongings confiscated and being booked into jail.
Councilmen Garry Bredefeld, Oliver Baines, Paul Caprioglio, Clint Olivier and Luis Chavez joined the law’s author, Steve Brandau, in approving the measure on Aug. 24. Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria was the lone vote against it, and Abré Conner, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, cautioned the council against a law that she said could represent an unconstitutional violation of the civil rights of homeless individuals.
Brandau said in August that the ordinance was inspired by complaints received by his office and those of his colleagues from residents and businesses about nuisances, litter and unsanitary conditions created in their neighborhoods by homeless campers.
Leaders of organizations that support housing for the homeless reported in August that Fresno’s homeless population rose by nearly 20 percent over the past year. The Point in Time survey, conducted by volunteers for the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, estimated the city’s homeless at 1,572 people in 2017 – up from 1,319 in 2016.
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado contributed. Ashleigh Panoo: 559-441-6010, @AshleighPan