What's at stake:
The Fresno County Sheriff's Office will purchase a new $450,000 vehicle for homeless encampment sweeps, but unhoused people and advocates question whether it's the best use of funds.
Mary Mason knows how a homeless encampment sweep goes down. She has been through one before, and so has almost everyone she knows.
The reality of being homeless is dire, Mason said. A lot of it is wondering where you’re going to get your next meal, where to go if it starts raining, or the next time you’ll be able to shower.
It’s wrong, she said, for law enforcement agencies to then come into a homeless encampment, push out its residents and throw away “what little they own.”
“It’s degrading, and it’s painful,” Mason said. “Whatever we have, that’s what we have. It’s our belongings. And for them to take it away — they know we have nowhere else to go, and we have to start all over.”
Soon, it may be easier for Fresno County Sheriff deputies to sweep large homeless encampments, as county officials recently approved a proposal to purchase a $450,000 custom vehicle for large homeless encampment sweep operations.
On Jan. 24, Fresno County Supervisors approved the county sheriff to purchase a new Ford F650 vehicle with a custom-built 22-foot van body, outfitted with office space, air conditioning, a bathroom, generator and power awning.
“The specialty vehicle will give the deputies and other agency personnel the ability to get out of the elements,” which can include extremely hot or cold weather while doing homeless encampment sweeps, according to a county report.
The money for the new vehicle comes from the Fresno County Sheriff’s civil automation fund – pooled from a share of fees people pay so the sheriff’s office can serve court documents for them — from eviction notices to divorce papers. With a budget of $1.27 million this year, the fund is typically used for buying office supplies, new equipment and upgrading software, said Sergeant Scott Weishaar.
The new vehicle would greatly aid in sweeping large encampments that take more resources and agencies working together, said Weishaar, who is part of the sheriff’s office civil unit, which is in charge of homeless encampment sweeps.
Weishaar said the vehicle would serve as a command center, to coordinate agencies — including city and county law enforcement, environmental health and public works — involved in sweeping unhoused people, their belongings and any waste or trash.
Beyond coordinating encampment sweeps, Weishaar added that the vehicle creates an indoor, air-conditioned space away from unsanitary conditions in homeless encampments.
“You as a human, just like any law enforcement officer as a human, is probably going to operate better and more efficiently the more comfortable the working conditions are,” said Deputy Doug Richardson, another member of the sheriff’s team that carries out encampment sweeps.
Richardson said over time, Fresno County sheriff deputies have learned better strategies for carrying out homeless encampment sweeps, and that the purchase of the new vehicle came from overall internal conversations on how to make their encampment sweep operations more efficient.
“What kind of permanent solutions are we going to have in place in terms of dealing with this population and trying to offer services and do all of those things?” Richardson said. “So feedback was absolutely critical in how we came along in all of this.”
Is this the best use of funds?
Dez Martinez, a local homelessness advocate, said it doesn’t make sense to her how public officials and law enforcement are able to see their own needs but completely ignore how unhoused people are asking for many of the same things.
“Why are we not using that $450,000 to house individuals, but we’re gonna use $450,000 so the officers can have a toilet to sit on?” Martinez said. “The unhoused people want a toilet to sit on too. They want to get out of the elements. They want a chair to sit at, a desk to sit at. They want to be treated like humans.”
Fresno County, like all other counties in California, is the lead agency responsible for administering local care to its residents for social services, which includes homelessness response.
Because the Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the new vehicle as an item on its Jan. 24 meeting’s consent agenda, the topic was passed unanimously by all five Fresno County supervisors and was not subject to a public discussion.
Martinez, who found out about the new vehicle during an interview with Fresnoland, said its approval felt sneaky, adding that most residents in Fresno County do not have the luxury of attending Fresno County’s Board of Supervisors meetings, which happen every other Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.
“It’s just frustrating finding out something like this passed,” Martinez said. “Why again do the officers need to be treated with humanity while the unhoused are not treated with humanity?”
Martinez added that purchasing this vehicle does not demonstrate Fresno County officials are listening and trying to help unhoused people.
“It’d be nice to be able to provide more housing and stuff like that, but law regulates how this money can be used,” said Weishaar, the Fresno Sheriff’s Office sergeant, adding that the new vehicle will benefit the agencies involved in homeless encampment sweeps and “hopefully help the homeless in some way.”
Mason, who has been unhoused for two years, said her heart broke when she found out about the county officials approving the new vehicle for homeless encampment sweeps.
“We’re nothing to them. They don’t care about us,” Mason said. “That money can be spent a lot more wisely.”