For almost a year, Nancy Holmes and Sinamon Blake were neighbors in a homeless encampment in downtown Fresno.
But city employees bulldozed their camp a few weeks ago, in an effort to rid the city of illegal structures. The two friends, and the other residents of their camp, scattered. Nancy and Sinamon ended up on a huge, dusty piece of land outside the city's jurisdiction.
“I didn’t care for the path that Sinamon found us, but damn, we were safe,” says Nancy, 61, a borderline diabetic with asthma.
She lasted there for about two weeks.
“You blow your nose in the morning, and you have a mud pile,” she recalls.
Since then, Nancy and Sinamon have taken separate paths toward survival. Their current living situations shine a light on the housing options available to Fresno’s homeless, now that the city is cracking down on encampments.
I met Nancy last week at a house on Dakota Avenue, where she’s lived for about a week now. The Dakota Eco Garden, as it’s known, is the brainchild of local homeless advocates.
Currently, two people live inside the home, and one is in her tent on a raised platform in the backyard. A fourth is in a small, eco structure designed by architect Art Dyson that generates its own heat and air conditioning. The backyard has a huge fruit and vegetable garden.
“I have high hopes for the people who live here, eating a lot of the food from the garden and lowering their food costs,” says homeless activist Nancy Waidtlow.
After living in a tent for almost a year, Nancy Holmes says she feels saved.
“I can take a shower, wash my clothes, eat food, any put my food in the fridge,” she says. “It’s between heaven and hell... Hell is out there in the dirt.”
For the first time in years, Nancy finally feels like she’s back on solid ground.
“I guess you can say living in a motel you’re homeless, but we had showers, we had a stove to cook on, things like that,” she says.
Before she landed on the streets, Nancy moved from motel to motel with her daughter and grandson.
“My daughter is a prostitute. I had food stamps, she would pay the rent and I would buy the food,” she says.
Years ago, she says, she cooked at area restaurants and hotels, and then worked as a security guard at the Fresno Art Museum. She hasn’t worked since 2006, when she lost her security job, and later had two heart attacks.
Today, she says she’s found a new calling. I ask her if she still considers herself homeless.
“No, I consider myself a homeless advocate now, someone that’s there to help,” she says.
She pauses, and a smile comes over her face. We’re sitting on lawn chairs, and she points toward a flower garden.
“How sweet, a hummingbird!” she exclaims. “Sinamon would love that.”
The next day, I join Nancy and two homeless advocates to visit Sinamon. The dusty field is a stark contrast to the Eco Garden. It doesn’t look like a hummingbird - or a human - could survive here.
Soon, Nancy spots the make-shift structure that she shared with Sinamon and her dogs. Sinamon had been in the nearby canal, and was soaking wet. She met us at her camp, a sprawling structure that’s ingenuously made from tarps and other found items. She’s built a living room, kitchen and bedroom.
“We’re out of view of the freeway, and far away from the street,” she says. “We’re out of view of the public, which is what the City seems to be pushing so hard, that they don’t want to see us.”
The location is remote, but it has a huge asset: Running water. Sinamon led us down to the canal. Then she waded in to scrub the dust off the fur of her biggest dog, Sheba.
“Even if there were nicer places that had grass, or had other things going for it, I would pick this, because running water is life,” Sinamon says.
Sinamon says she’s been homeless most of her life. She grew up relying on welfare, school lunches, and free snacks from rec centers.
She has, she says, “a lot of memories of blanketless or sheetless beds, a mattress in the corner of the room, and about 8 or 12 kids sleeping and sharing that bed.”
Why, then, I ask her, didn’t she want to move into the Eco Home with Nancy? One reason, she says, is she couldn’t take all of her dogs, who she loves like daughters. She says she values freedom for herself, and her dogs.
“I didn’t raise them like that, to sit in the corner, and wait to fetch,” she says. “I taught them to roam around, keep an eye on things, and run and be alive. She doesn’t have the space for that.”
To an outsider, it might be tough to see Sinamon living alone like this. But she says she’s less likely to get raped, robbed or jumped here, than in other areas where the homeless stay.
“It’s safer out there than it is to sleep in the doorway of a business downtown, or anywhere in town, actually,” she says. “It’s safer here than it is to sleep at Roeding Park, or Woodward Park, or Kearney Park, or any of the missions.”
As we say goodbye, Nancy, Sinamon and the homeless advocates point out to me the taller buildings of downtown Fresno. They can make out the women’s old encampment. It was a reminder that these women’s homeless journeys could be long from over.