For about two years, a huge, gutted steel warehouse has been home for people like Dino, George and Brian.
Fresno's street people call it the jungle, a place to sleep, drink and cook for 40 to 50 transients, alcoholics, illegal aliens. The perimeter cyclone fence is torn down or cut, and small cooking fires built on the dirt floor offer the only warmth inside the rusting, barn-like structure.
Fresno's downtown commercial district, about half a dozen blocks away, is framed by a large, pitched metal roof, barren steel beams and railroad tracks. South of the shed on South G Street stands the Fresno Rescue Mission, and beyond that warehouses, beat-up motels, prostitutes and "crack" cocaine dealers.
"What this is is a city in itself. It's a little country inside itself. It's open to most anybody, but they have to prove they can go out and get what they need for themselves," said Dino.
Dino, George and Brian led a reporter through the shed during a recent foggy weekday morning. Mike McGarvin, who as founder of Fresno's Poverello House has helped feed street people since 1973, arranged the tour and suggested the three men as escorts.
McGarvin advised the visitors to keep an eye out for "paint sniffers," who tried to pelt him with rocks during his last visit.
Rock throwing is a minor concern. A transient was beaten to death with a metal pipe in the shed the night before. Fresno police reported a fight broke out when the victim's dog defecated on another man's bedroll, but Dino, 37, said he heard the fight was over a woman.
"Everybody over here has got to get along," he added.
"We're friends with the Mexicans as long as they keep their problems to themselves," explained Dino, who is black. "Back here, the cops basically leave us alone because we police ourselves. As long as you follow the rules that are set--the jungle rules--everything is fine."
Dino's living quarters--he calls it a house--is formed by odd pieces of plywood and scrap lumber, draped with hunks of soiled carpet and milky-white plastic. These "houses" provide minimal shelter from the elements; with the rain blowing the wrong way, one can wake up drenched, Dino said.
His shelter, perched on a concrete slab, contains an old military cot with a dirty mattress and a used couch a few feet away, where friends sleep. A clothesline, laden with shirts, jeans and socks, cuts a diagonal line through the small dwelling, probably 25 feet long by 15 feet wide.
About a dozen of these rickety shelters stand throughout this expansive shed. Dino said the jungle is carefully segregated--blacks staying on the northeast corner, Latinos on the southwest, Chinese somewhere in between, he said. Low-lying heaps of garbage are neatly pushed away from the sleeping, living and eating areas.
George, 38, nods his head, and recalls one night when he got too drunk, staggered into a wall of one of the houses, and brought it crashing down. George was asked to sleep elsewhere that night.
"When they ask you to leave, discretion is the better part of valor," he said.
"Share and share alike" is the byword for communal existence here, Dino and George emphasized. As they explained the workings of the community kitchen, splintered pieces of wooden packing crates slowly burned in a nearby cooking fire, providing some warmth. Two large pieces of flat scrap iron served as heat reflectors, and another flat piece, supported by rusty coffee cans, lay over the fire like a griddle.
Pans, Food in Locked Shed
Near the fire, a small tin shed stores pots, pans and food that Dino said are safe behind the padlocked door. Perishables are kept in ice chests, and the ice comes from a discarded pile from a nearby ice plant. From time to time one of the workers donates a huge ice block for the men.
George, rotund and balding with a large black beard, calmly and quietly walked with the group through the shed, his fists stuffed inside a grimy fleece-lined denim jacket. His contributions to Dino's monologue were thoughtful and articulate.
Many of the men who eat or sleep in the jungle go out and hustle for money and work, trying to contribute to a communal fund for food, he said.
Work Brings Self-Respect
"It's hard to take handouts all the time. Working makes them feel like a man instead of a child, with someone trying to take care of them all the time," George added. "If you don't hustle something for yourself here, then you don't belong here."
Both men emphasized that property rights are respected in the warehouse. Once Dino found a stranger snoring on a couch in someone's house. The stranger was told to leave because "you've got to ask permission before you can come into anybody's house to sleep."
"What people have got under here, they've hustled for, they've scraped for," said Dino.
Steady Work Elusive
He said he once brought home $300 a week as a warehouse manager in San Francisco and attended pre-law courses at San Francisco City College for two years. After the warehouse closed, he moved to Fresno but has been unable to get steady work because employers think he is overqualified.
Now, Dino feels fortunate to wash dishes at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Fresno. He is vague about the whereabouts of his wife and children, whom he sees frequently.
During a week between interviews, Dino moved out of the jungle to a house on the other side of town. His "house" didn't remain empty. His friend Brian now stays there.
George once made $30,000 a year as manager of a Fresno auto parts store. An alcoholic, he "got into trouble," got divorced, lost that job and many others. He's been living on Fresno's streets for six or seven years, traveling around the West with spot jobs. Asked if he expects to move out soon, like Dino, George shook his head.
"My reputation is bad," he said matter-of-factly, describing himself as "an overqualified alcoholic."
"I've been through a lot of (alcohol treatment) programs and it's not for me. It's not my thing."