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Fresno’s homeless task force cleans 2 tons of trash a day. Is that an officer’s role?

Fresno’s homeless task force hauls off 2 tons of trash a day

The daily routine to keep Fresno’s streets and alleys clean of debris from homeless encampments keeps the police department’s homeless task force and city sanitation crews busy.
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The daily routine to keep Fresno’s streets and alleys clean of debris from homeless encampments keeps the police department’s homeless task force and city sanitation crews busy.

Fresno Police Department’s homeless task force spends a big chunk of its time cleaning up homeless camps with the city’s sanitation crew — amounting to more than two metric tons of trash a day.

But some city leaders don’t believe law enforcement should have to tackle the issue of homelessness.

Statistics from the Fresno Police Department show that from October 2017 to June this year, the task force officers made nearly 4,000 contacts with homeless people, many of whom they see often. In that same time, only 40 homeless people accepted social service connections the officers offered them. Meanwhile, the officers and sanitation crew cleaned up 2, 744 camps.

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Fresno Police Officer Noel Perez gathers electrical wiring (commonly stolen for its recycling value) to be put in a waiting garbage truck for later sorting during a cleanup of an alley near Highway 41 on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

“Cleanup is a key part of what we do for health and safety reasons,” said Fresno police Capt. Burke Farrah, who oversees the task force. “There’s some counties in California who have Hepatitis A outbreaks. We’ve been able to avoid that in Fresno.”

The team of officers and sanitation workers pick up anywhere from two to 10 tons of garbage a day from homeless encampments, said Marty Martinez, a supervisor with the city’s solid waste division.

Farrah said if the camps aren’t cleaned, latrines develop, creating a sanitation issue. Officer Gary Holden said the task force has found infestations of rats, cockroaches and bed bugs. Martinez said a few weeks ago MRSA, a type of staph infection that’s extremely resistant to antibiotics, swept through the camps.

“Some people say it doesn’t seem humane to clear the camps,” he said. “But letting them live in filth and squalor isn’t humane, either.”

In 2017, about 1,800 people in Fresno lived without a home, according to data from the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care.

‘Heart for the community’

The police department’s homeless task force has existed for nearly five years, but it has evolved. In September 2017, the original officers on the task force were reassigned to the police department’s crisis intervention team. Farrah assembled a new homeless task force with one officer from each policing district.

“These officers volunteered,” Farrah said. “These are all guys who wanted to do the job and have a heart for the community.”

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Elena Zurala listens as Fresno Police Officer Albert Avelar advises her on what she can take with her during a cleanup of an alley near Highway 41 on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. She was offered assistance and declined it. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Officer Joel Sanchez said he joined the effort because he felt he’d make a bigger difference than working patrol.

“Out of the hundreds of people that we contact, if we can save one or two, that makes a big difference,” he said. “Here, I feel like I can really make a change by contacting people, letting them know that there’s services out there. We can’t reach everybody, but we try.”

In October 2017, the city’s new camping ban went into effect, and it’s the homeless task force’s job to enforce that law. Farrah said arrest is a last resort, even if the officers have gone so far as to bring someone to the booking bay of Fresno County Jail.

“We’re not here to drag people to jail,” Farrah said. “We’re here to help people.”

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Fresno city sanitation workers from left, Chris Quinonez, Ray Velasquez and Gary Bowin, scoop up the last bit of debris - a hypodermic needle was found among the trash - during a cleanup of G Street near Ventura Street on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Police department statistics show that fewer than 100 homeless people contacted by the task force were booked into jail from October 2017 to June this year for open warrants or pending charges. That’s about 2 percent of the contacts. Six people were cited for illegal camping.

Each day, the officers and sanitation workers who make up the homeless task force, along with a garbage truck, begin in the pre-dawn hours cleaning camps near the Poverello House around G and Ventura streets. After that they head out to locations throughout the city where residents have reported nuisances from homeless camps.

On Wednesday, the task force contacted at least 20 people in a matter of two hours who were camping illegally. Not one was arrested. The officers helped the campers sort through their belongings and toss trash and any items that could carry disease into a 10-ton garbage truck. They encountered countless used needles and syringes, at least two knives and other weapons such as ice picks.

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Officer Joel Sanchez shows a large-bladed knife attached to a bike found in an unattended homeless camp during a cleanup along G Street on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

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Officer Gary Holden shows a card that police hand to homeless people offering assistance when they do their daily cleanups of their camps. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

The officers carry handouts with them that list the resources available to the homeless, such as substance abuse treatment, mental health services and suicide prevention. The handout includes a phone number for MAP, Fresno County’s Multi-Agency Access Program.

The officers assure the people they encounter that they’re not in trouble, and the officers want to help. They ask them to dispose of their needles instead of leaving them in the street.

“You can walk into any CVS, pharmacy or police station to drop these off,” Sanchez told one man on Wednesday. “We don’t ask any questions. You know kids come through this alley, right?”

“The last thing you want is for someone to get stuck with a needle,” Officer Noel Perez added.

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Officer Noel Perez shows hypodermic needles found at the camp of a homeless man during a cleanup of an alley on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Councilmembers question police involvement

City Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Oliver Baines say the Police Department should not use officers to tackle the issue of homelessness.

“Sadly, we have all placed an undue burden on the homeless task force to deal with the homeless problem,” said Baines, who worked as a police officer before he was elected to the council. “That’s not their job. Being a homeless person is not a crime. Law enforcement activity should be reserved for criminal behavior.”

Soria echoed those sentiments, saying the city’s officers should be working to fight crime, and the city’s camping ban doesn’t address the root problem of homelessness.

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Officer Gary Holden advises Elena Zurala of help she can receive after she was told she was in violation of the city’s no-camping ordinance during a cleanup of an alley on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Farrah said the officers provide protection for the sanitation crew members who clean the camps.

Martinez said crew members constantly receive threats, rude hand gestures and are cussed-out while cleaning up homeless camps. “If they’re drunk or on drugs, they threaten us,” he said. “That’s why we have the police here.”

Baines said the burden to address the homeless issue should fall on agencies such as the Continuum of Care since it receives funding from the state and federal government. “That’s not occurring,” he said. “The onus is put on the police department unfairly.”

Soria said the issue is too complicated for one simple solution.

“It’s going to take the entire community to solve the issue.”

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix
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