On Monday afternoon, residents along the Tule River, with help from Central Valley Empowerment Alliance, INC. (CVEA), held a press conference to shine light upon the recent events that have taken place along the river at the hands of the Tulare County Sheriff's Office (TCSO).
Mari Perez-Ruiz, Executive Director for CVEA, opened the conference and explained on January 18 she received a call from Rosendo “Chendo” Hernandez, a resident along the Tule River, saying TCSO was on-site asking river residents to sign eviction notices and TCSO deputies were taking photos of river residents and searching their persons.
“In lieu of what we witnessed in Visalia at the St. John’s river bank where approximately 260 folks were evicted, their civil liberties were violated and they did so against CDC guidelines and against Superior Court rulings and international right violations,” said Perez-Ruiz. “We also learned that among those people who were evicted at St. John’s, a number of them had COVID-19 positive, and we don’t know where they are at. We are concerned for their health and are trying to track them, and we are concerned for the health of our wider community.”
She said Tulare County is being disproportionately impacted by the virus compared to other counties, and CVEA is trying to prevent what happened at St. John’s River from happening at the Tule River. In order to prevent this, Perez-Ruiz says a restraining order has been filed against TCSO.
“A restraining order has been filed against the Tulare County Sheriff's to cease and desist and stop evicting our neighbors, our family, our friends,” said Perez-Ruiz.
Hernandez, who's a plaintiff in the case and has been a resident of the Tule River for the past 15 years, was emotional as he spoke on Monday.
“I’ve been homeless for 17 years, give or take, and the issue here today is not about me. It is about everybody out here,” said Hernandez. “Due to the disease that is going around, they are not giving us any help. We are not asking for it, but at the same time they are trying to throw us out of here with nowhere else to go. Where do they want us to go and where are they going to put us at? They don’t have an answer for that so what are we supposed to do? They offered me jail. We are not proud of this, believe that. Where do we go from here? The ball is in their court, and they can tell us what to do from here. I can tell you I am not going to go quietly, we did nothing wrong.”
To take it a step further, CVEA has gotten Michael Bracamontes, of Bracamontes & Vlasak, P.C., a Civil Rights Law Firm in San Francisco, involved. Bracamontes says he's ready to use all of the legal action he can to keep the people living along the river protected. He also said the Tulare County Board of Supervisors needs to be held accountable for their lack of care of the homeless in the county.
“We are here today because of a series of failures,” said Bracamontes. “There is a failure on behalf of our society. We are the richest country in the history of the world and we haven’t met our responsibility to the poor, especially the rural poor here in Porterville up and down the Tule River. There is an estimate of between 50 and 150 people that live in these encampments.
“We are here because of the failure of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. California Welfare and Institutions Code 17000 requires and mandates that the county care for the poor, that is their responsibility. Talking to the people here, no one at the county is stepping up and meeting that obligation.
“Lastly, we’ve got the failure on the part of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. The 9th Circuit ruled that moving unhoused people when there is no alternative shelter or emergency housing available is cruel and unusual punishment, and it is something that was supported by the Supreme Court last year. In January 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court supported and upheld that ruling, so there is clear legal precedent that without alternative housing it is unlawful for law enforcement to harass, displace or arrest and threaten to prosecute people who are unhoused and yet here we are. As a community we have to rise and meet these failures and help these people, because they are people. They are individuals who find themselves here and don’t want to be here. It is up to all of us to step up and work collaboratively towards a solution. In the meantime we will be using whatever legal means that are available to help meet those goals.”
Last to speak during the press conference was Porterville City Council member Daniel Penaloza. Penaloza said that both the Tulare County Board of Supervisors and the Porterville City Council had failed its homeless community and he hopes he can start conversations about solutions for the homeless among the council.
“These statements do not represent the Council as a whole, they are my views,” said Penaloza. “It hurts my heart to hear the struggles that the unhoused community have to endure in this county. This is an issue that we need to continually uplift and look for solutions. I feel that today we have to hold the Tulare County Board of Supervisors accountable for not ensuring the proper resources coming into the most vulnerable of our communities, including the unhoused communities. Along this river we have been passing the ball back and forth from jurisdiction, and at the end of the day the people that get hit the most are the people that are here at this river. They don’t get the resources they need. To add to that, they don’t get a voice in the decisions of the programs that they are instituting in this county. Many times there are more barriers than opportunities given to the unhoused community through the programs that they have available to them.
“The second thing that I would like to add is that the Porterville City Council has not done enough, we have not done enough, to address the solution. If it is a priority, we can get things to happen in this city. For me, this is a very serious priority. Why? Because I wake up to a roof on my house, to be able to shower in clean water every morning, I have the basic necessities in my life. Yet we have hundreds of people that don’t have those basic necessities, and guess what… They are human beings too, just like myself. I am not any better. We all deserve the human right to basic things in life, and right now this county has failed the unhoused community. We need to continue to put pressure and today this press conference is to do just that, to make sure that we uplift their voice and that we make sure the county listens.
“Most importantly, we need to make sure we address the situation that there is not enough housing available for these folks. We are pushing people out of places that they live without providing the proper resources for them to move into somewhere else at a different area and location.”
When asked if the city had given response to what TCSO is doing along the river, Penaloza said no official statement had been released by the city as of yet, but he did request an item be placed on the Council’s agenda to discuss this situation and the facts of what's going along the river.