Costs of criminalization

Study finds increased costs, arrests since implementation of sit/lie ordinance

Map of homeless arrests

Map of homeless arrests

illustration by sandy peters

Read the report:
The entire report can be can be found on the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care’s website at

Local laws criminalizing aspects of living homeless have led to increased arrests and policing costs and pushed vagrancy issues out of Chico’s city center and into surrounding neighborhoods, a recent study conducted by a group of Chico State experts suggests.

The study, titled “Impacts of Chico’s Public Safety Approach to Homelessness: Initial Analyses,” was released in June, and the team behind the research recently redoubled its efforts to disseminate the results, says political science professor Jennifer Wilking. Copies were sent to each member of the Chico City Council last week.

“I’ve been working with North Valley Housing Trust for about three years, and through that work I started getting an education in local issues around homelessness.” Wilking said. “As a researcher who puts a lot of value in evaluating things systematically with data, I was inspired to look at what our community’s approach to addressing homelessness is, and if that approach is working.”

For the effort, Wilking drafted four other Chico State faculty and staff members (Susan Roll from the School of Social Work, David Philhour from the Psychology Department, Peter Hansen from the Geographical Information Center and Holly Nevarez from the Department of Health and Community Services). The group chose to focus on the effects of the sit/lie ordinance passed by the City Council in November 2013, as well as other public safety policies aimed at homeless individuals.

Wilking said the Chico Police Department provided the bulk of the data, with arrest records from Jan. 1, 2010, to June 30, 2016, and estimates of police time and costs provided by the CPD to the Butte County Grand Jury. The team narrowed its research down to three questions and started crunching numbers.

Violation of the sit/lie law is not in itself an arrestable offense, and a total of only 72 citations were issued for that charge during the study’s time frame. With that in mind, the group’s first question was whether that law had indirectly lead to an increase in arrests of homeless individuals.

What they found was a significant increase after the law’s implementation. Before sit/lie, an average of 2.7 homeless people were arrested each day, accounting for 21.6 percent of all arrests made by Chico police. After sit/lie, an average of 4.1 homeless individuals were arrested daily, accounting for 34.4 percent of all arrests.

Chico State professor Jennifer Wilking

Photo by Ken Smith

The group’s second line of inquiry was whether the location of arrests of homeless individuals changed over time. Again, the data showed a clear trend, with the mean location of arrests moving northward, away from the city center, each year. That seems to confirm community perceptions.

“We’re hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence when we present the information from people saying they see a lot more visible homeless in other parts of town now,” Wilking said.

Finally, the researchers wanted to know the overall cost of policing the homeless population. Wilking said the research was able to account for only some of those costs, as housing status is not recorded unless an arrest is made. The cost from arrests was $882,065 from 2010 to 2016. An additional $19,768 in citations for camping, property storage, waterways and other violations likely issued to homeless individuals during that time is noted in the study. Wilking added that the county’s cost of jailing homeless individuals was not included.

Wilking acknowledged the study has some shortcomings due to unavailable data. Still, she said she’s confident in its methodology and results, which she presented at a Western Political Science Association conference in Vancouver earlier this year. The study also has been submitted for publication in the sociology journal City & Community and is undergoing peer review.

Wilking said the group’s research is ongoing, and that it will choose new topics related to local homelessness to explore in upcoming months.

Locally, the study has been presented to several groups, including the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force. City Councilman Randall Stone was at that presentation and on Tuesday (Sept. 5) said he’d read the entire report. He said he thinks the data is valuable, but that he’s not confident his colleagues on the council will.

Stone expressed frustration with the City Council’s previous decisions to pursue “hard-line conservative” tactics that target the local homeless population despite a lack of data to suggest such efforts are effective. He said he’s presented quantitative and anecdotal evidence similar to the Chico State group’s findings from other cities, which he gathered as a member of the League of California Cities’ Housing, Community, and Economic Development Committee.

“I told the council when they passed sit/lie in 2013 that this is exactly what would happen,” he said. “I specifically cautioned that this is what’s happened in literally every other community that’s tried similar tactics.

You cannot cite your way out of vagrancy issues. Clearly, if [the other council members] didn’t get the message the first four or five times, and they’ve stood by and watched the consequences unfold, then they aren’t going to accept it now.

“You can lead them to the knowledge, but you can’t make them think.”