Group Seeks to Help the Homeless Help Themselves

Daniel Lawrence spent a year living on the streets of Tulare, and what he experienced is helping drive a movement to protect the rights of indigent people in the South Valley.

The Union of Hope, a newly-formed group championing the plight of the homeless, hopes to become both a guardian of their rights and see the county’s displaced population working together for its own benefit. Efforts by the homeless themselves, the group believes, could be its greatest resource when it comes to removing obstacles, both practical and political, that keep them unemployed and without housing once they find themselves on their own.

Just Bad Luck

“It wasn’t an addiction problem or crime, anything like that. Just bad luck,” Lawrence, 31, said of how he ended up on the streets after losing his job at Walmart and going through a divorce while the recession was in full swing. Even before he became unemployed, things had been very tight for his family. “With the help of welfare, I was able to provide my ex and daughter with a car and apartment. Things were rough. Yeah, making it.”

Once alone and on the streets, things turned dark. He found himself cited by the police for creating a nuisance on the Santa Fe Trail and couldn’t afford to pay the $100 fee Tulare requires before the ticket could be challenged.

“I have to sleep somewhere,” Lawrence said he told the officer who issued the citation. Tulare police are tasked with acting as code enforcement officers in situations dealing with the homeless even when no crime has been committed. “I asked where I could go. He basically said, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’”

Lawrence took the advice.

“I started sleeping in bushes,” he said. “I’d get evicted by the police or a city crew. They’d cut the bushes back so there was no shelter. These bushes were out of the way. It was obvious it was because of me.”

Redress of Grievance

Sgt. Andy Garcia, spokesman for the Tulare Police Department, said that is not the city’s policy when dealing with the homeless.

“If it’s a nuisance because they’re in the bushes, no we’re not going to go in and cut those down,” he said. “Rails to Trails is considered a park, and there are regulations that prohibit individuals from doing certain things when they’re on the trail.”

The day Lawrence was cited, he was with a group of friends. When asked by the officer, if the officer had spoken to him on the previous day, Lawrence refused to answer the question.

“That was about the extent of the conversation,” he said.

Lawrence and another man, a veteran who was not homeless but who argued with the officer, were ticketed.

“I had to pay the fine, sort of as a deposit,” Lawrence said. “I’d get it back, but couldn’t get a hearing without paying.”

Frustrated by what he suspected was an unconstitutional act, Lawrence was able to contact the American Civil Liberties Union with the help of Union of Hope. The issue has since been addressed with Tulare City Hall.

“When a subject is issued a citation they do have an opportunity to contest the citation,” Garcia said, “and whether or not the people are able to afford the fine, we do have a hardship waiver they can fill out.”

“They have 15 business days to appeal that citation,” said James Ussery, code enforcement officer for the TPD. “They come into PD and fill out a hearing form. At that point they can request that hardship policy.”

Creating a New Hope

That policy’s quick deadline, however, still presents problems for the homeless, who often have no transportation, an issue among many Union of Hope hopes to eventually address, along with other practical matters, such as safe sleeping areas for the homeless, storage for their possessions, and access to restrooms and bathing facilities. Lawrence would like to eventually see a network of basic shelters providing those necessities, as well a shelter to house residents who are working to reenter society.

“I came to the point in my life where I was hopeless, but maybe I can do something positive for others,” said Lawrence, who has since found an apartment and is getting back on his feet. “I’d seen these people who had lost hope. My life was like a chess game in check. I thought hope would make a big difference.”

Upcoming Union of Hope Meetings

Union of Hope will hold a pair of meetings this month. The first at 6-7:30 pm on Thursday, Aug. 20 in the Blue Room of the Visalia City Library. At that meeting, members of the ACLU and Union of Hope will be on hand to assist homeless people who feel they have been mistreated by the police. Complaint forms will be available, as will assistance in completing the forms.

“This is regarding people who have complaints with the police department,” said Raoul Gallegos, a retired social working and member of Union of Hope. “We’ve got one lady, the police roughed her up and broke her arm. Another man had his encampment torn down, and they threw away his medications and belongings. That’s illegal. They’re human beings.”

A similar meeting will be held in Tulare from 11am to 1pm on Saturday, Aug. 22 at Garcia Family Pizza, 724 W. Inyo Ave.

Here to Stay

Union of Hope is currently seeking nonprofit status, which the group hopes will make their mission of creating a more compassionate awareness of homelessness and changing local policy regarding more easy to accomplish.

“We’ve been around a year, maybe a year and a half. We’ve been to several city council meetings,” said member Steve Pendleton. “We’re doing outreach to several homeless people in Tulare. A couple of months ago, our big concern was getting a summer shelter for these people, we’re thinking the armory. We got over a thousand signatures. We presented that to the (Tulare) City Council. They did nothing about that. I was at that meeting. The place was packed. The misinformation presented at that meeting was so appalling. People got up and said the homeless wanted encampments. They said there are going to camps at this place and that place. It just wasn’t true. It was so provincial and racist, it made me ashamed I live in Tulare County.”

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