EDITORIAL: Clearing homeless camps is a must for Fresno

Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd made things explicitly clear Monday when he said "no mas" to the city's trial policy of turning a blind eye to illegal homeless encampments.

Allowing the homeless to set up permanent shelter on sidewalks, in fields and on other properties is believed to be the compassionate thing to do by some homeless advocates, who accurately point out that it isn't illegal to be poor.

But being homeless doesn't exempt a person from the law. And while trying to be compassionate the city allowed parts of Fresno, particularly southwest and downtown neighborhoods, to become havens for gangs and others who prey upon the weak.

In addition, the city, as Rudd acknowledged to The Bee's Editorial Board, had become vulnerable to potential lawsuits from residents in areas where laws were being selectively enforced. In other words, what was being allowed there -- the accumulation of garbage, needles and feces, and the tolerance of illegal squatting -- is not tolerated in more affluent parts of Fresno.

As we wrote in a March 15 editorial about the threats to public health posed by the encampments: Mayor Ashley Swearengin "is to be commended for her efforts to provide housing for people in unfortunate situations because of the economy, substance abuse or mental illness. But her efforts to maintain Fresno's appearance and to protect residents who take pride in their neighborhoods are failing."

Subsequent investigation by the Fresno Police Department showed that we understated the problems, according to Police Chief Jerry Dyer. Gangs have been using the camps to sell guns and drugs. Prostitution is commonplace. Portable toilets provided by homeless advocates were commandeered by the most powerful elements of the camps, who extorted a price for their use. Then, in July, a man was shot and killed.

City officials say they will follow the letter of the law in disbanding the encampments at Santa Clara and G streets (Aug. 26), Los Angeles and E streets (Sept. 3) and H Street (Sept. 9), and will videotape interactions with the homeless and storage of their possessions. Notices of the clearings are being posted. Dyer says the homeless will be allowed to set up shelter for a night, but must pick up their possessions and move on during the day.

City and Fresno County employees, along with homeless advocates, have increased their knowledge of how to deal with the complex homeless problem over the past five years. There is better coordination, there is greater expertise and there is more funding. Strategies are data driven, which is a must, because anecdotal evidence is the enemy of progress.

Swearengin long has focused on housing as the first step toward stabilizing the lives of people on the streets. As the city clears the illegal camps, we suggest that she and others step up efforts to increase short-term shelter opportunities for those seeking better lives.