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County leaders wary of homeless burden, migration from Fresno’s no-camping law

'They like to do big shows about nothing,' supervisor says of Fresno's camping ban

Two Fresno County supervisors chastised the city of Fresno for a lack of collaboration before enacting a new law to outlaw camping by homeless people within the city limits. Video from the Oct. 17, 2017, Board of Supervisors meeting.
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Two Fresno County supervisors chastised the city of Fresno for a lack of collaboration before enacting a new law to outlaw camping by homeless people within the city limits. Video from the Oct. 17, 2017, Board of Supervisors meeting.

Less than a month into enforcement of Fresno’s new ordinance that makes homeless camping a misdemeanor punishable by arrests and fines, Fresno County leaders fretted that it could have the potential to simply herd people living on the streets into county islands within the city or into Fresno’s outskirts.

County Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Buddy Mendes lamented last week that City Councilman Steve Brandau, the primary backer of the ordinance that took effect Sept. 30, didn’t consult with county agencies that deal with the homeless – public health, social services, behavioral health, planning, probation, public works and sheriff’s departments – as the ordinance was being crafted.

Now, however, Mendes’ fears have been allayed over how the law is being enforced, even as Borgeas remains wary of the ordinance’s effects.

Under the ordinance, people who refuse to relocate when police ask them to move along can be arrested. As an alternative, they can opt for officers to take them to a site where they can receive social services such as emergency shelter, physical and mental health care, addiction treatment or other services most often provided by or underwritten by the county.

During an Oct. 17 presentation to the Board of Supervisors by the county’s Working Group to Address Homeless Encampments, Mendes and Borgeas suggested that Brandau’s ordinance was more showmanship than problem-solving. Their worry was that the law would have the effect of shifting the societal and financial burdens associated with homelessness from one jurisdiction to another without actually doing anything to address the needs of the homeless.

“Simply grabbing the headlines through a change in ordinance at the city is ultimately not helpful to the problem,” Borgeas said . “If people were serious about wanting to resolve these community concerns and the impact (homelessness) has on our community, they would be working directly (with county agencies that are) the experts in the field.”

I think when you have a cross-jurisdictional issue like (homelessness), it’s imperative that the city and the county ... work together. Not in silos, but together.

Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas

Borgeas asked if county staff had been consulted by the city prior to the Aug. 24 vote to finalize Brandau’s ordinance. No one from the city or Brandau’s office had reached out to county officials. “It’s no surprise,” said Borgeas, a former City Council member. “I think when you have a cross-jurisdictional issue like this, it’s imperative that the city and the county, and the county and the city, work together. Not in silos, but together.”

“Unfortunately, things fall through the cracks sometimes,” Borgeas added. “I think this is an example of an issue that could have been handled better.”

Mendes praised county departments for working collaboratively with property owners to deal with encampments and provide assistance to the homeless, and contrasted that with what he saw as Fresno’s approach to some issues. “This isn’t a criticism, just a fact – (the city) likes to do what I call ‘Seinfeld’ things; ‘Seinfeld’ was a show about nothing,” Mendes said, referring to the 1990s situation comedy starring stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld. “They like to do these shows about nothing, and what they do is push the problem over to us and they feel, ‘Hey, we accomplished something.’ 

Deputy County Counsel Kyle Roberson outlined some of the fears that county departments anticipated as a result of the ordinance. “What we anticipate  is an increase in migration of the homeless population into the unincorporated areas,” Roberson told the supervisors. “History is what we’re basing this on because when the city had its enforcement of homelessness back in 2006, that’s when we saw a greater increase in the homeless population in the unincorporated areas.”

The authority for police to arrest campers who refuse to move was a concern for both the Sheriff’s Office and Public Defender, with the potential for more bookings into the county jail and greater demand for defense attorneys for the homeless who are subject to arrest.

But a homeless person can opt to be taken by Fresno police for social service help from the county in lieu of arrest, potentially increasing the demand for services from the county’s behavioral health, public health and social services departments. “There’s also a concern that violators may be brought to county facilities  without warning that may overwhelm staff,” Roberson said. “And the greatest concern is these homeless individuals may be dropped at county locations and become stranded, again increasing the burden on the county to try and address these homeless individuals.”

By last week, however, Brandau and Mendes were in agreement that the city and county are now pretty much on the same page in terms of the intended purpose of the city’s no-camping ordinance.

529Homeless people approached by police to move from encampments in first month of Fresno’s anti-camping ordinance

1Homeless person arrested under the ordinance

2People cited and released under the ordinance

268Number of encampments cleaned up by city sanitation workers

Councilman’s view

Brandau said he believes the fears were overblown because of erroneous perceptions of how the ordinance would be enforced. Between Brandau, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Mayor Lee Brand’s administration, “we knew there was going to be no sweep of the homeless,” Brandau said. “We’re not overwhelming the system because it’s working as we anticipated, that it’s not a sweep of the homeless.”

In the first month after the ordinance took effect, Fresno police officers working with the city’s homeless task force encountered 529 people and offered them information about the range of services available to help them, said Mark Standriff, a spokesman for the city. Of that number, only one person was arrested for violating the no-camping law; two others were cited and released. Standriff, however, said police did not track how many people received social services in lieu of being arrested. Additionally, Standriff said sanitation crews cleaned up 268 camps.

Mendes said he has a better understanding of the ordinance and its enforcement now than in mid-October. “It’s really about the buffer of what Jerry Dyer’s officers are going to do,” Mendes said. “It’s just part of the toolbox for the officers. When they talk to a homeless person, it’s ‘If you don’t move on, I have to arrest you.’ And they’re moving on.”

Mendes added that he’s much less concerned about Fresno police “overwhelming” the social service system with multitudes of the homeless. “It just isn’t going to happen,” he said. “(Officers) don’t want to waste their time when they’ve got crime to fight.”

Borgeas is less convinced. “I’m unaware that there is clarity on this issue,” he said Friday. “There are still more questions than answers between the two agencies.  It is a fractional response to a complicated issue.”

Brandau said he appreciates how county leaders could get the wrong idea about his ordinance. But “if one arrest is overwhelming the services of the county, then we have a problem of even bigger magnitude,” he said, adding that concerns about driving people from city territory into county islands “would be just another irrational fear.”

This wasn’t about helping the homeless; it was about helping the rest of us. ... The fact that the homeless are getting help sooner and faster is a great by-product.

Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau

After conversations with Mendes, Brandau acknowledged that there could have been more communication. “I think they’re only request, and I do think it’s valid, is that I should have spent more time talking with the county before,” Brandau said. “But we were facing a crisis on the streets of Fresno that I just had to address.”

Brandau added that the ordinance was aimed more at getting the homeless to comply with officers’ requests to up and move from impromptu settlements on vacant land, parking lots or alleys near homes and businesses. “This wasn’t about helping the homeless; it was about helping the rest of us,” he said. “It’s about not allowing people to set up camp in one particular area to start dragging down resident and businesses.  The fact that the homeless are getting help sooner and faster is a great by-product.”

As the city strives to keep the homeless from establishing prolonged camps, the county is dealing with its own encampment concerns. Nine encampments have been cleared by Fresno County since late 2015, each with between six and 30 people. Except for one large encampment near Mendota from which people were evicted in November 2015, all of the others have been on county territory on the fringes of the Fresno city limits or on county islands within the city. One of the larger encampments was on Lafayette Avenue north of Belmont Avenue, for which the county spent about $70,000 for cleanup in March.

Enforcement of the city’s ordinance focuses on the homeless people themselves, while the county’s laws deal with consequences for property owners who fail to maintain their property and allow encampments to take root.

Once the county becomes aware of an encampment, homeless advocates are notified so they can go to the site and offer services. Sheriff’s deputies can use trespassing laws to clear homeless people from property after providing a seven-day notice of an impending cleanup. But property owners are required to organize or hire a cleanup crew to clear the property immediately after trespassers are removed by deputies.

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