In the morning, most people start their days getting ready for work, but hundreds of others in Fresno are starting their day with a very different agenda. Their goal today is survival; they’re the homeless. In a six-part series, Eyewitness News’ Ken Malloy deep dives into Fresno’s homeless problem. Who does it affect? How do they get on the streets? What’s keeping them there? And most importantly, how are some finally getting back on their feet?


By KEN MALLOY | May 12, 2017

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Like most of us, homeless people start their morning with a routine.

Smoke rises from a makeshift homeless camp fire; an American flaps quietly the still morning air. As the sun rises, huddled, nameless faces once in the shadows are revealed.

Their bed is concrete. Their blanket is a sheet. Their only comforter is their socks.

Like most of us, the day starts with coffee. One person living on the street said they’re not supposed to light fires, but “I want my coffee. So I’m going to make a fire.”

A woman shares a meager breakfast with her dog.

There are a lot of dogs here – lots of blankets and hooded sweatshirts, too.

It’s hard to wake up here. For many, the day offers nothing; it’s a picture of despair.

“I’ve been homeless for a period of nine years.”

Another day on the streets of Fresno is about to begin.

Hundreds call this narrow strip of Santa Clara Street near the Poverello House in downtown Fresno home.

This is their lifeline. It’s a potential gateway to getting off the street.

Nyree Bernard came here years ago.

“When I got off the Greyhound, I used to be down there, and I came right here. And they helped me,” Bernard said.

She’s from Kansas City, Kansas, and she’s been here for five years.

“It’s surviving,” Bernard said about what it’s like living on the streets.

She moved to Fresno to meet her mom, but things didn’t work out. So she found a new family.

“Basically everybody is like family out here,” Bernard said.

“We try to take care of each other – you know? When times get rough, you know. But everybody is doing what they got to do to get off the street,” Bernard said.

But getting off the streets is hard.


 

“We try to take care of each other”

Like Bernard, Armando Flores has been on the streets for years.

“I’m finally going to get housing after four years,” Flores said. “I’ve been homeless for a period of nine years.”

And like Bernard, Flores has a back story.

There was a time he had it all.

“I worked for the railroad,” Flores said. “I had a home – had a family. But situations happen.”

For Flores, situations included drugs, the loss of his mom, depression and jail.

“Surviving out here it’s hard,” Flores said.

“I had a home – had a family. But situations happen.”

The homeless people clean up Santa Clara Street and prepare for a new day.

A train whistle blows in the distance, and one man loads up everything he owns onto his bike and makeshift trailer to head out for the day. Destination: unknown.

Barking dogs will guard these curbside homes until their owners return, and pigeons scrounge for scraps left behind.

Most will be back by sunset. Because like it or not – for many, this is home. At least for now.

Meanwhile, there’s a renewed effort to help the Valley’s homeless.

It’s a program called Real Change Fresno.

The premise is simple. Instead of giving homeless your “spare change,” offer them “real change” by donating to the local organizations that are a lifeline to the homeless.

They offer them a new start – a new family.


 

The movement called Real Change Fresno is a project of Leadership Fresno – Class 33.

Last month, Fresno Mayor Lee Brand declared April 27 Real Change Fresno Awareness Day.

“I have been a big fan of Leadership Fresno over the years,” Brand said.

This group of community-minded volunteers with Leadership Fresno has a mission.

“Today is about awareness of all the organizations in town that provide services to the homeless,” said Leadership Fresno Vice President Michael Grannis.

But what does that look like? And what exactly what is Real Change Fresno?

If you go to their website, realchangefresno.org, you’ll see their mission is as simple as it is effective.

Give, but give differently. Giving your “spare change” to a homeless person – they call that “giving that hurts.”

“We all have an instinct to want to give a dollar to the panhandler on the street.”

“We all have an instinct to want to give a dollar to the panhandler on the street,” said Fotini Alfieris of Leadership Fresno.

Instead – they say offer the homeless “real change” by giving to the organizations that actually get the homeless off the streets.

They call that “giving that helps.”

“Our dollar will go further by supporting local organizations that are here to help the homeless issue in the community,” Alfieris said.

Their website lists 16 different organizations dedicated to getting the homeless off the streets of Fresno. It’s a network – a safety net, and it works.

“Not giving them a hand out, but giving them a hand up,” Alfieris said.

Poverello House, the Fresno Rescue Mission, Fresno First Steps Homes, The United Way, and Fresno MAP – or Multi-Agency Access Program – are just a few of the organizations that make up the safety net.

“We’re highlighting these organizations that are normally humble,” said Charah Coleman of Leadership Fresno

“You have to get out of here, Liz. You have to get out of here. You can’t make it out here. You’re going to die out here.”

“It was really bad. It was a really dark time in my life. When you’re out there, it’s really easy just to stay out there. You get sucked into the cycle of addiction and homelessness,” said Elizabeth Sandoval, who was homeless for four years.

Seeing Sandoval now, it’s hard to imagine she was once homeless and addicted to meth..

“Made some bad choices – a lot of bad choices. That led me into addiction and homelessness,” Sandoval said.

So how did she finally get off the streets? She heard her inner voice crying out.

“‘You have to get out of here, Liz. You have to get out of here. You can’t make it out here. You’re going to die out here,’” Sandoval said.

Her “real change” was the Fresno Rescue Mission – not the “spare change” she used to collect on the street.

“They have provided me with a place to change my life, gain a relationship with Christ – just a whole new life,” Sandoval said.

Kirby said, “So giving somebody a buck doesn’t necessarily fix the problem. I would say if anything, it only adds to it.”

“God told me that if I went back to the Fresno Rescue Mission, he had something better in store for me.”

“Made a ton of wrong decisions in my life,” said Brien Kirby. “I don’t know. At about the age of 14, I started using drugs.”

Kirby became addicted to meth and was homeless for about four years.

He used the “spare change” people gave him to fuel his drug addiction.

“To be honest, I was probably going to get high with it.” Kirby said. “With the meth epidemic, a lot of people are literally losing their minds.”

Like Sandoval, his “real change” didn’t come from his “spare change.”

“I was praying to God, and God told me that if I went back to the Fresno Rescue Mission, he had something better in store for me,” Kirby said.

Like Sandoval, Kirby is now clean, employed and working to help others.


 

The Real Change Fresno project with Leadership Fresno is spearheading a renewed effort to help our local organizations get more homeless people off the streets permanently.

But getting off the streets takes a plan; it takes a road map.

Many of us would be lost without Google Maps. It keeps us on track – pointing us in the right direction until we reach our destination.

Likewise there is a roadmap – of sorts – for helping the homeless get off the streets of Fresno.

Appropriately enough, it’s called MAP which stands for Multi-Agency Access Program. It started in February 2015.

“The concept is really good,” said Cruz Avila of the Poverello House.

Avila says MAP uses case managers – or as they like to call them: navigators – to help process and identify the immediate needs of the homeless.

“They’ll do an assessment [and] see what the need is. If it’s housing – if it’s a drug rehab program – if it’s just getting shelter – if it’s getting medical, Medicaid or if it’s getting a driver’s license,” Avila said.

Think of it as one stop processing center for the homeless.

“Yeah, safety’s a big issue for me, and it’s safe here and we have security 24/7.”

For instance, Nyeree Bernard needed legal documents to get her life back in order.

Her navigator pointed the way.

“Had to get my birth certificate [and] my social security number – my ID,” Bernard said “It’s safe here.”

And for Linda Gonzales, her MAP navigator got her temporary housing in a shed at the Poverello House.

She’s off the streets now and feels safe.

“Yeah, safety’s a big issue for me, and it’s safe here and we have security 24/7,” Gonzales said.

She’s been living in a tiny shed for four months now, and now she has even bigger dreams.

“Poverello House is helping me in the process of getting housing. I’m on a waiting list right now,” Gonzales said.

And while she waits. Gonzales – like hundreds of others – is being fed and cared for every day at the Poverello House.

Thanks to MAP, the process of getting someone off the street has been streamlined – there’s more teamwork across various agencies.

For instance, it used to take take up to six months to process someone and get them off the street.

“But now that’s going to a 30-to-60 day housing component,” Avila said

But the first step of getting off the street begins with the homeless themselves. They have to want help.

“I repair things. And people throw away things, and I sell them – I fix them,” said Michael, a homeless person.

Michael has been homeless for about four years. He’s a former truck driver.

“Do you want to get off the street eventually, Michael?” Eyewitness News’ Ken Malloy asked.

“Yeah, yeah I do,” Michael said.

“Do you want to look at something like the Fresno Rescue Mission or the Poverello House?” Malloy said.

Kirby added, “It gives you a jumping off point to maybe get a job and change your life.”

“I would like to change,” Michael said. “I appreciate that but, you know what I’m saying. But I don’t want to be obligated to do nothing for nobody.

And so today, Michael says no to change. It’s the tragic truth for many homeless.

Kirby said, “Some people just choose to remain in that lifestyle because having no responsibilities is easier for them.”

Today Michael chooses the curb over a bed. Today he chooses to fix discarded debris instead of letting others help him fix his own life. Today he says no to Kirby – a former homeless man.

But who knows what tomorrow brings. Maybe tomorrow Michael will find his way off the streets. Maybe tomorrow he’ll hear a navigator’s voice echo his own words back to him.


 

Real Change Fresno’s goal is simple: End homelessness by empowering the local agencies that find and help our local homeless population.

It’s an annual ritual. Armed with flashlights, clipboards and personal care kits, hundreds of volunteers comb the streets of Fresno and Madera looking for the homeless.

The Fresno/Madera Continuum of Care oversees the January event. For two nights and one day, they canvas neighborhoods looking for the homeless.

It’s a snapshot in time. Who are they? How many are there?

The information is given to the U.S. Department of housing and urban development which can help fund long-term help for the homeless.

“There’s usually enough support to get them off the street within 24 hours. As long as they can find their way to that support.”

“Homelessness is a very complicated issue. If there are 600 estimated homeless people in Fresno, there are 600 different stories as to what got them to that point,” said Seth Scott of Leadership Fresno. “There’s no responsibility – no rules. You know, just do what you want.”

At one of their regular staff meetings, Real Change Fresno says the homeless can be broken down into three categories.

Category one is situational homelessness which is caused by temporary circumstances. Maybe the loss of a job or someone going through a divorce.

“There’s usually enough support to get them off the street within 24 hours. As long as they can find their way to that support,” said Bill Avakian of Leadership Fresno.

Category two is addiction and mental illness homelessness. Real Change Fresno says addictions or mental illness account for about 80 percent of homeless people in Fresno. This is chronic, long-term homelessness.

“Those are the homeless we’re really going after with this campaign,” Avakian said.

And lastly, category three – urban campers.

They prefer living on the street with no bills to pay, no responsibility, and no conforming to the rules of a shelter.

“It’s really that middle category that we’re looking at. It’s people who just can’t really help themselves,” Avakian said.

Helping the helpless is good, but certain help can make things worse.

“Giving them a dollar or couple of dollars or a blanket is not going to address those root issues,” Scott said.

So how exactly can people help? Keep giving, but give differently.

Virtually everyone Eyewitness News talked to said giving a buck to panhandler – although it feels good to give – just keeps them trapped on the street.

It keeps them locked in a cycle of dependence instead of independence.

Avakian said, “It feels good in your heart to do that, but do folks really understand what that buck or $10 or $20 is really going for?”

Gonzales said, “It’s unfortunate, but some of the clients will utilize the money for drug of choice – alcohol of choice.”

So giving somebody a buck doesn’t necessarily fix the problem.

“I would say, if anything, it only adds to it,” Kirby said.

Scott said, “So giving someone your spare change keeps them in that cycle and keeps them dependent.”

It’s difficult because it’s hard to tell people when you see someone in need ‘Don’t give.’

Instead, Real Change says give to the organizations that can really help the homeless.

“The important thing is to just get people plugged in somewhere,” Scott said. “You know, getting them to some sort of care.”

It keeps them locked in a cycle of dependence instead of independence.

“Fresno has some amazing organizations already in place,” Avakian said. “Let’s not just give on the street corner, but let’s give to those organizations; let’s get involved and make some real change.”

Educating the public is also key to the Real Change mission.

“That’s what the biggest piece is in our project,” Coleman said. “It’s educating and then empowering them as to what they can do instead of giving money.”

And who knows, if enough people change their giving habits, there might be one less person to count in next year’s homeless survey.

“If I change one person’s life, I’ve done my job,” Coleman said.


 

If there’s a “ground zero” for the immediate needs for the homeless in Fresno. It’s in downtown Fresno off of G Street.

On one side of G Street is the Poverello House. On the other side is the Fresno Rescue Mission. For many, this street is a crossroad – a turning point for getting off the streets, and it’s free.

On the narrow strip of road, lives are being transformed every day.

When you think of the homeless, images like disheveled hair, dirty clothes, a distant void look, and an aimless lost shuffle probably come to mind.

But at some point, some of these homeless will say to themselves, “‘I’m tired of living on the street.’ Once they say that, then we can start to help them,” said Don Eskes, the CEO of Fresno Rescue Mission.

In the courtyard at the Fresno Rescue Mission, former homeless men are finding hope, discipline, faith, and purpose.

“The first step is to walk in the door and want to change,” Eskes said. “We cannot change anyone.”

Eskes says building a relationship with these men is key.

“It’s matter of coming along side and helping those individuals and those folks that want to change,” Eskes said.

And that change includes free room and board, but everyone pitches in – no matter how menial the task.

It keeps them locked in a cycle of dependence instead of independence.

“I love it. I do the dishes and do whatever. Right now getting ready to set up for the guests,” said Allen Brown, who works at Fresno Rescue Mission.

Work here restores a sense of purpose and pride that’s sometimes lost on the streets.

Meanwhile, just up the road on G Street, the line forms for lunch at the Poverello House.

Between the Fresno Rescue Mission and the Poverello House, they’ll serve tens of thousands of free meals every week.

The need for food is insatiable. Commercial grade freezers are stocked with food, and commercial grade kitchens never seem to rest.

Along with the free food, the homeless get a new name. They’re all called clients. It’s a sign of respect – a first step to restoring lost dignity.

Here clients are fed and offered housing – albeit in temporary sheds.

Avila said, “We provide the cots, blankets, and pillows for them.”

Up the street at the Mission – transitional, temporary housing is also available.

Eskes said, “We have 96 beds upstairs, and it’s like being in the military.”

The bunk beds are spartan – more a military barrack than a home.

It’s simple and transformative.

“It’s been the best decision in my life,” said Jose Gomez, a former homeless person.

For Gomez, who used to live on the streets, this rustic setting is his second chance.

“Before here, it was ugly for me. I would be out there in my addiction. Running the streets; running amok. And lost full contact with myself as a person,” Gomez said.

But shaking addictions and demons takes more than room and board.

“The need to change has to be stronger than the addition,” Eskes said.

For some it takes faith.

“It’s a community issue, and we all have to work together to address the issue.”

Eskes said, “We have chapel services here every night.”

Sandoval said, “Jesus in my life is what helped me break that cycle.”

Eskes added, “We have services – have signing groups that come in.”

At the Fresno Rescue Mission, they also offer classes on everything from how to fill out job application, to how to dress – how to find a job.

This is the “real change” that the Real Change Fresno folks are talking about.

Want to help end homelessness? Donate here – not on the street.

Eskes said, “When we give someone $1 or $5 on the street corner, we’re really not helping them.”

Sometimes the real change happens in a courtyard, not a street corner.

“It’s a community issue, and we all have to work together to address the issue,” Eskes said.


 

In one of the hallways at the Poverello House, you can see pictures of an earlier generation of homeless.

They’re all gone now. Some got help, and unfortunately some died homeless.

The whole point of Real Change Fresno – and Eyewitness News’ report – is to help save this present generation of homeless now while there’s still time.

Bernard said, “Don’t knock them down; even though they’re on the street, they still good people.”

They’re faces from the past, but their stories and struggles still ring true today.

Flores said, “Surviving out here it’s hard.”

They once had families.

Bernard said, “These are good people.”

But their struggles, voices and vices echo into a new generation of homeless.

Regardless of the generation, the lessons learned from the plight of the homeless are timeless.

No. 1: Curbside giving won’t end homelessness.

“So giving someone your spare change keeps them in that cycle and keeps them dependent,” Scott said. “It’s hard to tell people when you see someone in need ‘don’t give, – that’s so hard.”

No. 2: Give, but give differently.

“Let’s not just give on the street corner, but let’s give to those organizations. Let’s get involved, and make some real change,” Avakian said. “Fresno has some amazing organizations already in place.”

“Not giving them a hand out but, giving them a hand up.”

No. 3: Engage – talk to a homeless person.

“‘You look like you can use some help. Can I get you plugged into some help?’” Scott said.

No. 4: Call 211; it’s the United Way hotline.

They’ll show up and help get a homeless person if they want it.

“Not giving them a hand out but, giving them a hand up,” Coleman said.

No. 5: Spread the word. Think differently; act differently.

“The education piece is huge,” Coleman said. “That’s what the biggest piece is in our project. It’s educating and then empowering them as to what they can do instead of giving money.”

So is real change possible? Yes.

Remember Kirby? After being homeless for years, he’s clean sober and helping to get others off the streets. He wants to be a youth pastor one day.

And after being homeless for four years, Sandoval is now clean and sober, too, and helping other families.

Gomez is clean sober, too, and looking for permanent housing. After being homeless for years, Bernard is finally off the streets.

“If I can do it they can do it,” she said.

Flores hopes to be next.

“I’m finally going to get housing after four years. I plan to go back to school,” Flores said.

“But if I change one person’s life, I’ve done my job”



And Gonzales hopes she, too, will soon find permanent housing.

Is change like this easy? No. Is is possible? Yes.

But some might ask, “Won’t Fresno always have some homeless?” The answer is yes.

“That’s true. It’s a huge systemic issue. But if I change one person’s life, I’ve done my job,” Coleman said.

And that’s a message that resonates from this generation to the last.

Coleman added, “We can do something. We can make a real change in Fresno.”

For a list of local organizations making a huge impact on homelessness: Real Change Fresno

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