Compassion or containment?
Homeless advocates, service providers discuss differing philosophies and the Jesus Center move
Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County’s Housing Authority, has something of a grim appraisal of the overall effort to combat homelessness, which he shared at a forum on the issue held last Friday (Dec. 1) at Chico State.
“We’re moving our way forward, whether we like it or not, toward a new contract with society, because we cannot stand to see the homeless population continue to grow,” he said. Mayer was summarizing his views on the current state of homelessness, exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing and widespread economic disparity he compared to the Great Depression. “We’re seeing it grow, and we don’t see any factors at play in our current society that are going to mitigate that trend.”
Mayer was part of a six-person panel hosted by the California Faculty Association. Also participating were Jesus Center Executive Director Laura Cootsona; Emily Foxworthy, a health education specialist at Chico State’s Center for Healthy Communities; homeless advocates Patrick Newman and Siana Sonoquie; and Oscar Rodriguez, a Chico State student and former homeless and foster youth.
Each offered some insight on how widespread and consuming homelessness and its root cause—poverty—are in the community, affecting young and old alike.
Foxworthy, who oversees the campus’ CalFresh Outreach Program, noted 46 percent of Chico State students are “food insecure,” meaning they lack a reliable source of healthy food, while Mayer noted the fastest growing segment of the nation’s homeless population is senior citizens.
“These are seniors who, basically, by virtue of a serious medical condition, have exhausted their resources,” he said. “They’re healthy again, but they’ve lost their homes in the meantime, and have to go live in a car and essentially wait to die.”
Cootsona offered a rundown of the Jesus Center’s services, and said cooperation between service providers is essential.
“What I hope to communicate is that part of what we do to address homelessness is that we do something together,” she said. “This isn’t something that any entity is going to do single-handedly. I really believe that the mark of a healthy community is one where we each take care, provide opportunities and come alongside those who are suffering, who are on the margin for whatever reason.”
Sonoquie and Rodriguez shared their own experiences with poverty, and spoke of the importance of involvement and volunteerism. Sonoquie explained how she left a high-paying job in the commercial sector to dedicate herself to social causes. Rodriguez, who will graduate from Chico State this month, emphasized the importance of education and mentoring.
Though Mayer also highlighted the importance of cooperation, he noted that, in Chico, substantive attempts to deal with homelessness are hindered by two diverging currents of thought.
“We have two streams in this community, each working without relation to the other,” he said. “We have the stream that involves the city administration and police who have criminalized homelessness and do everything they can to chase them out of our community. All they’ve done, since they’re from our community, is to chase them into the cracks and into the neighborhoods.
“The other is the social service stream. We have a wonderful collaboration and an array of social service agencies and entities in this county that work very well together, and our job is to find the homeless and provide them services, which has been aggravated by the fact that the city is now chasing the homeless to where we can’t find them.”
During the panel’s Q&A section, an exchange between Newman and Cootsona highlighted other philosophical rifts among advocates and service providers. Cootsona is a proponent of working with Chico’s business sector to strike a balance between serving the needy and protecting commerce, while Newman is outspoken in his support of homeless individuals’ rights to occupy public spaces. He expressed concerns that the Jesus Center’s proposed move to south Chico is an effort to contain the homeless population away from the city center.
Robert Jones, a philosophy professor at Chico State, asked Cootsona why the Jesus Center hired controversial homeless consultant Robert Marbut last spring to gather data on local homelessness, how much the study cost and why Cootsona hasn’t released Marbut’s report. Marbut regularly advises communities to focus shelter and services into large, single “campuses” separated from commercial districts.
Cootsona justified hiring Marbut by saying she likes to draw information from varied sources, and refused to share the cost of the study. “We felt it would be more controversial than helpful, so we chose not to share [the results of the study],” she said. “We didn’t think it brought enough value to create more concern about the data.”
Newman expressed concerns that the report had been shared with city officials and was being used to determine policy, including its support of the Jesus Center’s move. Cootsona denied having shown city officials the report, and said the Jesus Center—not the city of Chico—is overseeing the move.
Mayer interjected, noting how important it is for homeless people to remain visible in the larger community: “What is the strongest political stance the homeless can take on behalf of themselves?” he asked. “The answer, quite frankly, is to be right in the middle of downtown, right in our face. That compels us to rough up against this situation every day. If we relocate that population somewhere else, it’s out of sight, out of mind.
“The homeless best advocate for themselves by being visible and by being present.”