Valley Voices

Lisa Lindsay: Who are the homeless people in my library?

Several years ago, when I first began working as a librarian at the Central Library in downtown Fresno, I escorted a daily customer named James toward the door at closing time. He seemed to know everyone at the library, so most of his time was spent visiting with friends. He’d borrow a magnifying glass since he didn’t have glasses, and use it to peruse the newspaper. As we parted ways one day, I recall saying: “OK, James, it’s time to go home.”

Shortly after, I learned how presumptive that statement was. James slept in a variety of places, like the police station lobby, a breezeway next door to a nightclub, and the entrance to a nearby credit union. But none of these could be described as “home.”

I wondered how many other people knew the personal stories of those, like James, who didn’t have a permanent home. So in the summer of 2014 I began working on a short documentary to shift public conversations from one about “the homeless problem” to one about diverse individuals who don’t have housing. The resulting film, “Our Lives: Surviving the Streets of Fresno,” will have its premiere at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno at 7 p.m. Friday, and be available at the library for home viewing.

To get started on the documentary, I had to identify potential interview subjects. Dre, another library regular who lived on the streets, pointed out that nobody was going to open up with some white lady who looked like a social worker; I needed to find someone who was trusted on the streets.

Dre introduced me to Yellowfeather Noriega. For many years, Yellowfeather lived in downtown Fresno’s encampments — makeshift housing structures made of scrap wood, located on streets or vacant lots. Local homeless advocates funded port-a-potties, and for awhile the city even offered trash pick-up. Yellowfeather became homeless in the early 2000s on account of her addiction to meth, and while living in the encampments she dealt drugs to support her habit.

The encampments hosted many of Fresno’s homeless people until late 2013, when the city stopped providing basic services, posted eviction notices on each of the structures, and then tore them down. At this time, the city was at the midway point of its 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, with a strategy of putting resources into housing programs instead of maintaining the encampments. In practice, there are not enough resources to house everyone on the streets, so step one for the Housing Authority is assessing those deemed most vulnerable. Those with the highest ratings are put in apartments, almost rent-free.

When I met Yellowfeather, she was about one year into sobriety. She was living in a tent at Dakota EcoGarden, a small, environmentally friendly alternative to traditional homeless shelters.

Yellowfeather joined me and several others (including library staff and additional representatives from the homeless community) for film-making training at Fresno’s Community Media Access Collaborative. Soon afterward, she recruited several people she knew from the streets for two days of interviews at the library. The stories hit surprisingly close to home.

Jesse was a man once in the same drug rehabilitation program as Yellowfeather, and was very open about his continuing methamphetamine abuse. When he talked about suffering from bipolar disorder, I thought of my own sister-in-law’s most recent manic episodes. She has disappeared more than once. What would her life look like if she didn’t have loved ones who got her help? How would Jesse’s life be different if he had had the same?

Nolan, another interviewee, didn’t have a problem with drugs and alcohol — he just didn’t have a place to stay after his grandmother died. After finding out he had “problems with his memory” and being placed in special education in high school, he’d had several entry-level jobs while living with his mom. When his mom died, he took care of his grandmother. When his grandmother died, the local homeless shelter became his home.

Yellowfeather gets to the heart of the misguided attempts to solve the “homeless problem” when she says, “It’s going to take an effort of the community to erase homelessness because you can’t erase people. We are not going to disappear.”

The shantytowns are now gone, but Fresno is nowhere close to ending homelessness. In fact, according to the most recent grand jury report on Fresno’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, the overall number of people on the streets is projected to grow by as much as 25% as veterans from recent wars return. Fresno still lacks a short-term temporary shelter for men. Nationally, the Fresno area has the highest percentage rate of chronically homeless still sleeping on the streets rather than in shelter beds. You can read the grand jury report here:

For too long, we’ve just averted our eyes when we see homeless people. My hope is that the film will, at least, get us to look at our fellow Fresno residents, and strike up a conversation.