When Alejandra Hernandez arrived at the Dream Camp on Aug. 9, she dropped to her knees and kissed the dirt.

The single mother of three boys lost her job and her home in June over COVID-19. They tried sleeping in their truck on Santa Clara Street, the only place in Fresno untouched by the city’s homeless task force during the coronavirus pandemic.

But after a single night, she feared for her children as people sold drugs and banged on her vehicle’s windows in an encampment populated by hundreds of people and heaps of trash.

By contrast, the one-acre dirt lot under Highway 41, off Broadway Street, was clean and, most importantly, safer. So Hernandez cried and thanked God. She stayed with her boys in a tent for three nights until the camp’s leader, longtime homeless advocate Dez Martinez, helped place them at Fresno Rescue Mission. The boys now take their online classes at the shelter.

Under Highway 41 in downtown Fresno, homeless advocate Dez Martinez talks Thursday Aug. 20, 2020, about the encampment she set up, named Dream Camp by residents, to give homeless a safe and clean alternative to living on the streets. Photo by John Walker, The Fresno Bee

The camp’s transitory residents capped at 14 people, sleep in green tents, and have access to a clean shower, porta-potty, a kitchen with ice coolers, a gas stove, and multiple lounge areas and tables. They sleep in tents, but in peace.

“Am I breaking the law by trespassing? Yes,” Martinez said. “But for five years, I’ve been asking for this. We have now added four other shelters in Fresno, and every single one was full within a week. And we still have thousands of people out here in the streets.”

Caltrans Public Information Officer Elizabeth Yelton declined to comment on the encampment but said the agency has temporarily suspended encampment clean-ups unless there is an immediate safety concern.

H Spees, director of strategic initiatives for Fresno Mayor Lee Brand’s office, said the camp breaks city rules by having more than 10 homeless people live somewhere for more than 10 days — but the lot was not under the city’s jurisdiction. He said the state had bigger fish to fry, including encampments along the highways with raging fires and multiple shootings.

“The way she’s organized it and the people she’s chosen to invite into that camp, I would say that is not going to be high on Caltrans’ list,” Spees said.

Still, Martinez said she’s frustrated and exhausted. She pulls unpaid 17-hour shifts daily to keep her camp clean and safe, she said, yet continues to receive warnings from city and county officials about its legality. At the same time, conditions worsen, unchecked, at the encampment downtown. A fellow advocate has created a petition to support Martinez’s camp.

“They won’t clean up Santa Clara Street, but they’ll call Caltrans on my camp,” Martinez said. “Why have they not cleaned up Santa Clara street? I’ve been begging them to remove the criminals that are raping and selling drugs. I had to create a camp to make it safe because the people on Santa Clara are afraid.”

Safety fears at Downtown Fresno homeless camp

Santa Clara Street always attracted a large unhoused population, because of its proximity to the Poverello House, Spees said. But before the coronavirus outbreak, the homeless task force ensured nobody set up a permanent home by conducting daily wake-up calls to clear out tents.

Amid COVID-19, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and the Centers for Disease Control, recommended cities stop clearing encampments to reduce the spread of the virus. Encampment clean-ups have continued throughout the city except for the Santa Clara Street area.

Homeless men hunt for salvageable items in piles along F Street, near Santa Clara Street and the Poverello House, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Frustrated by the lack of safety on Santa Clara Street and the county’s inability to shelter more people, homeless advocate Dez Martinez started a safe homeless camp on her own. Photo by John Walker, The Fresno Bee

Spees described it as a portal: about 80% of the people staying in the nearly 500 beds made available by the county and city during COVID-19 were recruited into shelters on Santa Clara Street.

But as soon as those people left, more arrived, he said.

To address the growing population, Spees urged the city council to reinstitute daily wake up calls, restrict vehicular traffic to prevent drug deals and illegal dumping, and reintroduce navigation services to the area.

Councilmembers slammed city staff for taking so long to step in and offer essential trash pickup services.

“I was looking at the tears and frustration and depression, everybody sitting on the curb crying. Some people couldn’t get everything. It was a scene like the end of the world, where everybody’s just sitting there in disarray.”

dez martinez

Spees countered that the sanitation department regularly picks up 30 residential bins from the area. He said the area’s issues are deep-rooted and require systemic solutions.

“Three weeks ago, our outside legal counsel walked those streets with me and said, along with our sanitation department and the (Poverello House), this is the best that it’s been in six months. And then, almost the next week, it was right back to where it was,” he said.

Councilmembers Arias, Luis Chavez, and Garry Bredefeld argued the city should step up efforts to pick up garbage. The council passed a unanimous motion to clean up the area in the next 15 days.

“I would like us to press pause on this master plan and to first demonstrate we can clean up a street and sidewalk,” Arias said.

Fresno’s homeless at breaking point amid coronavirus

Martinez said conditions for the unhoused in Fresno have reached a breaking point under COVID-19 because people have nowhere to go.

While the state has paused encampment clean-ups, they continue to clear out encampments near the highways that pose safety risks, and the city continues to shuffle the homeless who are outside of Santa Clara. Shelters consistently hover at capacity.

In mid-July, Martinez was helping a group of about 25 people move off the highway. As soon as they hit the city streets, the homeless task force arrived.

“I was looking at the tears and frustration and depression, everybody sitting on the curb crying. Some people couldn’t get everything. It was a scene like the end of the world, where everybody’s just sitting there in disarray,” she said. “Where do we go? Every single shelter was full.”

That’s when Martinez decided to open her shelter.

“I’m going to show them how it can be done,” she said.

Martinez and about a dozen other individuals began by cleaning up the lot. They took about a week to remove wilted grass, weeds, and garbage. They fixed the fence, covered it with a tarp to protect residents from onlookers, and placed a lock on the gate, which closes at 10 p.m. each night.

Each morning, the guests fill up about 100 gallons of water from a nearby house, whose owner Martinez knows. They use the water to pat down the acre of dirt, to reduce dust. They use the water to shower with an electric shower head and wash dishes and clothes.

“For me to make food out here and for people to like it, it’s wonderful for me,” she said.

Rose Juarez DeLeon tidies up around her home, a tent under Highway 41, in a homeless encampment named the Dream Camp by residents, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Fresno homeless advocate Dez Martinez set up the camp with community donations and help. She was frustrated by the lack of safety on Santa Clara Street, where hundreds of homeless individuals have set up camp, where the city has not picked up trash for months, and crime is growing. Photo by John Walker, The Fresno Bee

The food and the tents and other supplies on the lot were donated by community members and organizations, including the Kashian Family Foundation. Martinez’s Facebook page, Homeless in Fresno, has more than 5,000 followers, and they have been instrumental to the effort, she said.

“We’ve created something beautiful,” she said. “And this is without funding from the county, state or city. This is without approval from the county, state, or city.”

Manuela Tobias is a reporter with the Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Manuela is the housing reporter for CalMatters. Her stories focus on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that have contributed to the housing crisis in California and its potential...