Adding it up
Local census reports homelessness is primarily a homegrown problem
Contrary to the continued claims of those who believe Butte County’s homeless population is primarily made up of “transients,” the majority of homeless individuals are local residents who wound up on the streets and have stayed there due to a lack of affordable housing, according to results of the 2017 Homeless Point-in-Time Census and Survey Report.
Of the 1,983 people experiencing homelessness who completed the survey, released May 25, three-quarters have lived here at least three years and 36 percent for 20 or more years. Furthermore, 78 percent of adults and unaccompanied youth surveyed reported they became homeless while living here.
“I think people tend to use that label [‘transient’] because if we separate ourselves from homelessness that way, then it’s a little less painful,” said Sherisse Allen, whose firm Housing Tools coordinated the survey for the Butte County Homeless Continuum of Care. “But the data shows that people aren’t becoming homeless elsewhere and then moving here … they’re from here. They’re our neighbors and they’re our youth.”
The point-in-time census, a biennial count of people experiencing homelessness or living in shelters or transitional housing, is conducted within a single 24-hour period locally and in participating counties across the country. This year, more than 300 professional and community volunteers participated in the local count, gathering information from eligible respondents countywide on Jan. 25.
The nearly 2,000 people who were contacted and chose to participate do not represent a full count of Butte County’s homeless population, but the latest local count is the largest since the survey began in 2009 and shows a 76 percent increase over the 2015 count of 1,127 homeless individuals.
Allen said January’s survey represents a more accurate accounting than those conducted during previous years, and that the higher response rate was due in part to improved outreach and procedural methods.
“I came aboard after the data was collected in 2015 and was able to meet with the steering committee to look at what we could do differently to make the count better,” Allen said. “They came up with about 50 things that we implemented this time around.”
She said improvements included streamlined training to ensure surveys were done in a uniform manner, and a greater level of involvement from the Butte County Behavioral Health Department.
“I don’t think the increase is as important as the overall number,” she said. “Whether they went up 10 percent or 200 percent, that number is very significant.”
The census was funded by Behavioral Health and the city of Chico. The local data, along with numbers collected nationally, are used by the US. Department of Housing and Urban Development to monitor homelessness. They also are used by state and national agencies to determine funding need and eligibility and to direct services offered by local providers.
Family crisis, financial and employment problems, and mental illness were the three most common responses participants gave when asked how they became homeless, and a lack of affordable housing was the most commonly cited barrier to finding a home. Thomas Tenorio, chair of the Butte Countywide Continuum of Care, said addressing the housing shortage is essential to combating homelessness.
“It’s a reminder of what everybody knows,” Tenorio said. “When you have it all in data form like this, it helps us look at things from the 10,000-foot level so we can figure out what’s helping and what else we can do.”
Chico City Councilman Randall Stone said the findings are on par with those seen in communities throughout California.
“The numbers have increased substantially and will continue to do so until we seriously address our affordable housing need, our mental health crisis, and all of the problems that are related to homelessness,” he said. “We just aren’t doing that, and it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon at all.”
Labeling homeless people as refugees from other communities has been a divisive and effective tactic in Chico, where backlash against so-called “transients” has ramped up support for ordinances that criminalize behaviors associated with living on the street, namely the city’s sit/lie and Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property ordinances.
Stone addressed a part of the survey dealing with those laws that reports 478 respondents said they’d been warned by police about violating those regulations, 181 reported being ticketed and 80 said they’d been arrested for breaking those laws.
The report underscores the point: “Lack of affordable housing is the cause of homelessness,” it reads. “Ordinances do not address this, or any other underlying cause of homelessness, and ultimately worsen the problem.”
“At the city level, we continue to believe we can cite our way out of vagrancy problems, but we can’t,” Stone continued.
The second-term councilman said he hopes the survey results help some people—including some of his colleagues on the City Council—understand that homelessness is not a crime, and not a problem rooted outside of our own community.
“The mayor of Chico said some months ago we need to rip the red carpet out from under these folks and let them know they’re not welcome here. But these people live here, they’re from here. This is just the most recent of many surveys that proves these are our people, and they need help,” he said.
Mayor Sean Morgan did not return a call for comment.