Compassion above all else

Efforts to further criminalize homelessness solve nothing and make people more miserable

In the spirit of bridging the crater-like gap between Chico Friends on the Street and Chico First, the CN&R would like to give props to the groups for their work supporting the civil rights of homeless individuals and conducting community cleanups, respectively.

By giving food to homeless people at City Plaza, CFOTS is making a statement: that those folks have as much right to the public space as anyone else. Additionally important, however, especially during the winter, is the group’s distribution of life-saving gear to the unsheltered.

Meanwhile, by picking up trash, Chico First joins a long list of local groups and nonprofits, such as the Butte Environmental Council, which for decades has organized events to beautify our parks and waterways. During a cleanup in 2008, as the CN&R reported, BEC volunteers collected a whopping 10.5 tons of trash in five hours.

The next year, according to the first-ever local Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey, the county was home to 1,106 homeless folks, 668 of whom called Chico home. Out of the total population of those surveyed, 28 percent (or 310 individuals) were unsheltered (i.e., living outdoors).

Today, according to the latest survey results, gathered in 2017, Butte County is home to 1,983 homeless individuals. Chico’s number: 1,096, which includes 433 people in the unsheltered category. That means homelessness has nearly doubled countywide over the last decade. Breaking it down further, the number of people literally living on Chico’s streets today is 25 percent greater than the number of folks in that category throughout the entire county nine years ago.

Our community is in crisis. It has been for years, due to a perfect storm of events: the Great Recession (steep unemployment, widespread foreclosures, etc.), a resulting lack of construction and subsequent housing shortage, and an opioid epidemic that has struck every socioeconomic class (the effects of which are easier for those with money to conceal and address).

We get Chico First’s frustrations with the side effects, including panhandling and litter. We understand wanting to keep the environment “clean and safe.” But we also know that demonizing this already marginalized population isn’t the answer. Nor is making their lives more difficult by codifying laws targeting them, such as the proposal to outlaw food giveaways in the city center (as chronicled by Robert Speer in Newslines, page 8).

Indeed, Chico First members would be wise to expend their time and energy on efforts that are proven to mitigate homelessness. At the top of that list, based on a growing body of research, is housing first. That’s the model in which people are immediately placed into stable living environments—it’s at that point they are more likely to successfully address the underlying issues that led to life on the streets.

How to help? Here are some suggestions: Lobby for the city to support Simplicity Village, a proposed tiny house community; gather donations, including building materials, for that effort; volunteer with any of the many local groups (Chico Housing Action Team, Torres Community Shelter, Jesus Center) that have a history of housing the needy; and donate funding earmarked specifically for that cause.

We also suggest that the group look into the origins of “America First,” a term that has resurfaced recently nationally but has disturbing connotations that aren’t widely known. Hint: It was an isolationist political group during the era of World War II, and used in Ku Klux Klan literature decades earlier.

Until we make substantive progress putting people in homes, the members of Chico First and other cleanup groups will only find themselves returning time and again to the same locations to pick up refuse. That’s the pattern we’ve seen over the years as both liberal- and conservative-majority leadership in Chico have chosen the path of least resistance: criminalization.

In fact, it’s that mindset that led to the creation of Chico Friends on the Street in the first place (see “Out of sight, out of mind,” Cover story, Jan. 23, 2014). Speaking of that group, we’re thankful its members are there to remind us that we’re talking about human beings. Above all else, we ought not lose sight of that.