Campers in sights
City Council approves controversial law targeting homelessness
A former code enforcement officer who recently witnessed a “transient couple” having sex outside City Hall; a downtown business owner who steps over human excrement on a near-daily basis to open her shop; and a homeowner on Lindo Channel who’s tired of picking up somebody else’s trash.
These were among the experiences shared by nearly 50 speakers on Tuesday evening (Sept. 15) as the Chico City Council considered a new law targeting nuisances and environmental degradation in local parks and creeks, all ostensibly associated with homelessness.
The Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property initiative was introduced by Vice Mayor Sean Morgan at the council meeting on Sept. 1 but has been in the works for four or five months, City Attorney Vince Ewing said during a staff report. Drafted with specific input from Chico police officers on the downtown beat, it prohibits the storage of personal property on public land; establishes City Hall and the surrounding area as a “Civic Center” and prohibits a host of activities there; extends the city’s existing civil-sidewalks ordinance (also known as the sit/lie law) to building entrances; and allows police officers to more easily cite homeless people for camping along Chico’s creeks and tributaries.
Roughly half the speakers favored the ordinance, citing often stark examples of quality-of-life issues. Some, such as Jolene Francis, former CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance would enforce “minimally acceptable citizenship standards.” Many with differing ideologies argued that citing or arresting a homeless person only compounds his or her situation without addressing root causes, and that the city should instead provide affordable housing and adequate mental health and drug rehabilitation services.
Jennifer Haffner, an attorney for Legal Services of Northern California, suggested that laws targeting vulnerable populations is a violation of constitutional rights. (In a case in Boise, Idaho, the U.S. Justice Department recently argued that banning people from sleeping on the street is unconstitutional, though Ewing’s report notes that a city’s right to prohibit camping in public spaces was upheld by the California Supreme Court in a case in Santa Ana.)
Local environmentalist and homeless advocate Cynthia Gailey said the city is “putting the cart before the horse. You need to give [homeless people] a place to sleep, poop and pee legally before you criminalize behaviors necessary for life.”
Wil Pierman, who identified himself as homeless, echoed Gailey’s sentiment with personal testimony. There aren’t any public restrooms open at night, he said, so people living outside don’t have much choice when it comes to relieving themselves.
“The bathrooms are locked,” he said. “How are you going to criminalize me for being homeless?”
The prohibitions in the newly designated Civic Center include bicycling and skateboarding; damage to plants and property; public urination and defecation; possession of alcohol; smoking; graffiti; amplified sounds; glass containers; unlicensed dogs and dog feces; and possession of hypodermic needles and syringes. Additionally, that area would be closed to the public from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., although citizens “will be allowed to remain and linger” up to an hour after a city-hosted event, the ordinance reads.
The law also aims to protect the city’s waterways and riparian areas by prohibiting camping overnight, entering unauthorized areas, possession of alcohol, littering and dumping, urination and defecation, and using firearms or fireworks.
Violating the ordinance would be punishable as an infraction or misdemeanor, at police discretion, said Deputy Chief Dave Britt. He emphasized that citations and arrests would be a last resort. “Our hope would be to direct them to services,” he said. (The law will be read for a second time in early October and go into effect 30 days thereafter.)
Before approving the ordinance on a 6-to-1 vote, members of the council acknowledged that the ordinance is no panacea, and that the end goal is helping unsheltered people on the path to permanent housing. The dissenting vote was cast by Councilwoman Tami Ritter, who objected to the law’s framing as an environmental measure rather than one specifically targeting homeless people—a point Mayor Mark Sorensen disagreed with.
“This isn’t about criminalizing homelessness, this is about criminalizing criminal behavior,” Sorensen said. “It is to stop the absolute desecration of our parks and waterways.”