Associated stories I produced related to this are:
Written by Jeff Pflueger
More Photographs, and interviews with Al and Cynthia by Jeff Pflueger at http://castories.com
Just off the highway on Olive Street in Fresno, California is the “Donut Queen.” Framed but faded pictures of smiling clients hang on the walls. A tight community of regulars crowd the chairs and tables. They chat loudly as they read the paper and wash down big bites of doughnuts with coffee. I met Al Williams here each morning.
Al would lock his bike outside. “My mule,” he'd say, grinning. He had with him a small black bag tidily containing all his valuables. Everything else, his bedding, shelter and clothes, were cached somewhere on the streets of Fresno. He'd always joke with the smiling woman serving doughnuts at the counter, “you ready to marry me yet?”
“We'd do anything for each other,” Al said of his friends at the Donut Queen. “We're all here every morning.”
Over two days, Al showed me the underbelly of Fresno, a California city crippled with staggering poverty. I'd learn about the silent, but violent, war against the homeless and the inefficiencies and dysfunction of the services provided. I'd see first hand the massive difficulties faced by the city and its homeless residents.
If one is looking for inspiration to help the complex and ballooning homeless situation in our nation, the violent and politically conservative town of Fresno, California seems an unlikely place to search. But as I learned, it is precisely because of Fresno's brutal response to its growing homeless population that an unusually hopeful story unfolded. Desperation, the victory of an epic legal battle, the unexplained death of one of the homeless movement's leaders, a heroic local journalist, a visionary architect, and villages made from recycled waste and straw bales, are each pieces of a story that may transform Fresno into an international model for housing the homeless.
Across the street from the Donut Queen is the MacDonald's where Al's deceased wife was once arrested for trying to use the restroom. Al told me that the police rolled her in her wheelchair into the middle of the parking lot in the cruel summer heat while they slowly did their paperwork in the shade. Each day, some of the homeless come to the parking lot to sell trinkets and crafts, or ask for money. Next to the MacDonald's is the Ambassador Motel. Al and his wife lived in the dirt field behind the motel for some time before she died. She was in her mid forties. Al explained that she had been “patient dumped.” After denying her treatment for a prolapsed rectum, the hospital dropped her off in the parking lot with what Al described as “open wounds.” Al's wife died a week later from an infection she contracted from her untreated condition.
Al told anecdotes like this, of life on the streets in Fresno, as if he were talking about the weather. I was reminded of when I was interviewing Iraqi refugees in Syria fleeing from the war, or when I was in Southern Lebanon talking with families in their destroyed homes after the 2006 war with Israel. The injustices endured are so great, and so numerous, that the understated stories can easily be missed even though the words are being spoken.
Cynthia and Al
Al Williams was born in 1947 in Oklahoma. Soon afterwards, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area where Al's father, in the military, worked in the shipyards. In 1952 the family moved to Bakersfield. When Al graduated from high school in 1963, he left home and moved to Fresno. Al then spent 9 years in the military and fought in Vietnam.
Al was first homeless in 1991. He had two children at the time and was working as a plumber. Losing his children is what Al says put him on the streets.
“I came home one night to an empty house. My two kids gone, my lady gone. I went to court about my kids and the judge said, 'she can do anything she want to do.' To hell with the system, to hell with society, I spent a lot of money on court....and she took my kids out of the state, which is illegal, and I just gave up then. I was homeless for probably about eight years.”
Cynthia Green lives across town, but Al and Cynthia have grown close through their years on the streets.
Cynthia told me, “Me and Al became tight in that we was thinking along the same lines. He was losing his loved ones, I was losing my loved ones, we was getting beat up, harassed and everything, put down, sit on the curb, so that made a bond between us that will last a lifetime.”
Al said, “A lot of people say we're married...but we can't stand each other half the time, but we love each other dearly....We call each other brother and sister basically.”
In 2000, Cynthia was working three jobs, one at Fresno's Zacky Farms, and two in-home service jobs caring for medical patients. Cynthia's in-home service work was taking all of her time, so she quit working at Zacky Farms. Soon after she lost her other jobs along with her apartment and, “was on the streets overnight.”
Cynthia explained that she was fighting hard at the time to create a union for in-home care workers. She said that a month and a half after she lost her job and apartment, the union formed. “I wouldn't have lost my jobs and my apartment if we had the union, but the timing wasn't meant to be.”
She has been homeless ever since.
The city of Fresno, California is struggling under enormous pressures due to poverty.
A 2006 Brookings Institution report, using 2000 census data, ranks Fresno as having the 4th highest poverty rate in the nation at 26.2%. But Fresno ranks 1st on perhaps a more important figure; with a 43.5% concentrated poverty rate, or the percentage of poor individuals in high-poverty neighborhoods, Fresno’s poor are geographically concentrated like nowhere else in the nation.
By city estimates, roughly one in a hundred people in Fresno, California are homeless. According to some homeless advocates the number is much higher; if “homeless” also includes the people who are “displaced”, that is without a home, but living temporarily in some form of shelter like a Motel room, the number may be as high as 1 in 20.
Across the city homeless encampments have swelled into villages. Each has a name like “The Hill”, “New Jack City”, and “L Street”. They are comprised mostly of camping tents packed closely together. Sleeping bags, blankets and tarps are often draped over the tents to provide additional insulation and weather proofing. Some homes within the encampments are shanties made of freely available materials such as pallets, plywood and blankets.
Fresno, Cal Trans and the Fresno Police addressed the homeless situation by conducting coordinated “sweeps” of the encampments. After police ordered residents to leave, bulldozers scooped up entire settlements and literally threw them away.
Al described one sweep, “They were brutal. They took everything. They threw our food away. They threw our clothes away....They destroyed my wife's wheelchair. They destroyed her medications....When I tried to stop them from destroying our stuff, they would actually pull guns on me.”
Cynthia told me about everything she lost, “I don't have a thing left. No identity. No papers. Nothing to say that you existed. They took my birth certificates, all ID, all family photos....that's why they call homeless people invisible people.”
In October of 2006, a Federal Judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop the city from conducting sweeps. Soon after, the homeless of Fresno won a rare victory in the form of a 2.35 million dollar class action lawsuit. Funds from the lawsuit went to the individuals whose possessions had been destroyed, as well as into an account to provide money for housing and medical care for them.
During the legal process, Pamela Kincaid, homeless herself, was a high visibility named plaintiff. She was beaten in the streets and hospitalized with brain injuries. Local journalist and homeless advocate Mike Rhodes is a central figure in helping to improve the situation for Fresno's homeless through his tireless reporting and activism. Mike Rhodes reported that according to a witness, the people who beat Pamela Kincaid were saying, “Drop the suit, drop the suit, you’re hurting us, you’re hurting them, now we’re hurting you.”
Two days after the class action lawsuit was certified, Pamela Kincaid was found dead after falling four stories from a balcony in the the hospital where she had been recovering. Mike Rhodes thinks that her death is suspicious. Pamela Kincaid's death was not investigated by the Fresno Police Department, nor was the beating.
Since the settlement, the city of Fresno has changed its behavior. Fresno now pays consenting motels $65 a night to house a homeless person. According to Al, after the voucher period is over, the people are most often back on the streets. Many of these hotels are dangerously run down. Recently, the city of Fresno closed one of its voucher motels, the “Story Land Inn,” because of building code violations due to mold, broken windows, and bad plumbing. Roughly 100 residents were evicted.
Fresno also began housing homeless people in tool sheds. In October 2009, Fresno dismantled the “H Street” camp and relocated the estimated 150 residents at a cost of $700,000. Many of H Street residents were moved into “The Village of Hope,” a settlement made of dozens of plywood tool sheds packed into two fenced lots. Residents live two per shed, without electricity, water, or insulation. Nobody can be in a shed between the hours of 8am and 5pm.
Violent behavior towards the homeless is still apparently common and defended in Fresno's police department. Brutal stories circulate on the streets that are difficult to verify, but on February 9, 2009, two officers in the police department were filmed as one restrained a homeless man while the other punched him repeatedly in the face and head. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Police Chief Jerry Dyer both promised an internal investigation and an external investigation conducted by the Fresno County District Attorney. Today, nearly nine months later, according to Mike Rhodes, no external investigation has occurred and the Fresno Police Department refuses to release the results of its internal investigation. And the two officers? “As far as I know, they are still with the Fresno Police Department,” wrote Mike Rhodes in an email.
As bleak and violent as the homeless situation has become in Fresno, Fresno is a city desperately in need of creative solutions. Local architect Art Dyson has been working on solutions as radical as the problem. “All marvels of history would have been history without bold decisions,” Dyson wrote in his proposal.
Dyson served his architectural apprenticeships with Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, and William Gray Purcell. His work has received over 150 local, state, national, and international design awards and he is featured in more than 400 publications and in over two dozen books.
Dyson's work is integrative, drawing upon many traditions and ideas. His approach to helping the homeless situation is perhaps the most integrative of all.
Art Dyson is creating a visionary program through Fresno Pacific University. The program is interdisciplinary, integrating sociology, anthropology, planning, architecture, and revolutionary ideas from sustainable building to create “Eco Villages” to house the homeless. The graduate students in the program will design and ultimately build the villages with the assistance of volunteers and the homeless themselves.
Each village will be limited to 20 residents. Small private shelters, built from reused and sustainable materials, will be arranged around community space and centered on a small-scale local economy such as the production of bamboo, and crafts created from bamboo.
Due to the recent housing collapse, land is cheap in Fresno. The villages themselves can be built for nothing claims Dyson, since the materials will be either reused or donated.
Dyson hopes to make Fresno a model for how other cities around the globe can help people without homes. Already he has traveled internationally to present his vision in cities desperate for solutions.
As ambitious and technical his plans are, they are rooted in a deeper passion about connecting diverse people experientially through the process of the project. Dyson writes in his proposal, “The program will help cultivate a culture of mutual acceptance and respect, solidarity and compassion, open communication and cross-cultural outreach by example. The program will serve as a catalyst to produce the highest aspirations of humanity into a practical reality.”
Dyson's approach is modeled clearly in the first tangible outcome of the project. Al and Cynthia collectively invested $16,000, a portion of the settlement money, in the purchase of a home that will become the Pamela Kincaid Neighborhood Center. Art Dyson and some other investors also chipped in to purchase the $28,000 dollar home that sits on 1/3 of an acre. Cynthia moved into the residence, along with some students who are assisting with the renovation, landscaping, and experiments in small scale economies. The center is to be a place to help the homeless. Dyson's drawings for the property feature extensive gardens, and a vegetable stand. The investors hold weekly meetings in Dyson's office.
Talking with Dyson and advocate and journalist Mike Rhodes, it is clear that the partnership is empowering the homeless to help themselves. Through their support, Cynthia and Al are bolstered in their work with the homeless. Cynthia told me simply, “Its about caring. You just need to care.”
“We won the money, we didn't win the war....The whole thing was to keep on fighting,” Cynthia said defiantly as she sat in the Pamela Kincaid Center that she partially owns.
Today, though Al and Cynthia are still very poor and on the brink of homelessness, they are leaders of the homeless community, fighting to improve a broken system. Al is on the editorial board of Mike Rhodes' Community Alliance newspaper, and writes articles for the paper. Both he and Cynthia tour with Mike Rhodes, presenting around the state about homeless issues. Al's business card reads, “Al Williams, homeless advocate.”
As Al and I visited the homeless encampments across Fresno, Al was like a gentle father, dispensing hugs, love and occasional reprimands to the massive homeless population. Everyone seemed to know and respect him.
In the Donut Queen I sat with Al as he checked messages on his cell phone. At that moment, gathering stories about life on the streets of Fresno felt like gathering belongings from a burning ship. There are too many important stories and too few hands on deck. Most all of the stories are being ignored. Eventually they will be lost. Tragic stories of homeless children and families were hidden everywhere across the city. I was anxious to get back to the streets.
Al put his cell phone away and looked at me. “OK. Where do you want to go?”