Chico’s homeless conundrum

If it’s not illegal to be homeless, why is it illegal to sleep outside or in a car?

The author was raised in suburban Orange County and has lived in Chico for nine years.

Is it illegal to be homeless in Chico? According to one Chico Police Department representative I spoke with, “basically.” I’ve been voluntarily homeless in Chico for about two years, since I lost my job and my house on the same day back in November 2011.

I was moving out of the room I rented into a small studio, but it wouldn’t be available for two weeks, so I’d camp/ couch-surf until then. But the day my camping was to begin, I was let go from my job. Of course, the new place wouldn’t rent to me without employment. After this happened, I decided to try out a different way of life. I began sleeping on the outskirts of town, always trying to conceal myself from the eyes of the “housed” and the law-enforcement community, lest they chastise me, fine me or haul me off to jail.

So you can understand my excitement when a wonderful person I’d never met gave me a small-but-free recreational vehicle—with a bed, toilet, shower and stove—in which to live. My mom, however, was less excited and warned me to check with Chico PD and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office to learn the laws concerning sleeping in my vehicle.

The officers at the Sheriff’s Office said that as long as I moved the vehicle a few blocks every seven days I would not be bothered (though I got the sense that this was not legal, just accepted). But the outcome at the Chico Police Department was less encouraging. I explained my situation to the young woman behind the Plexiglas and asked whether it would be legal to sleep in my new RV.

“No,” I was told. “It is illegal to sleep inside a vehicle in the city of Chico unless in a designated RV or mobile-home park.” Oh, that’s too bad, I thought. “Is there somewhere I can sleep outside my vehicle in Chico?” “No, that’s called urban camping—or something like that—and it’s also illegal in the city.”

Wow! Bummer! Then I asked, “So, it’s illegal to be homeless in Chico?” “No!” I was told. “We couldn’t do that. It would be discrimination! And we can’t discriminate against one segment of the population like that.” I pondered this for a moment, and then replied, “So, it’s not illegal to be homeless as long as you never fall asleep?” She smiled sheepishly, realizing this conundrum. “Basically.”