Deadly status quo

Without the Orange Street Shelter in operation, homeless folks will continue to live and die on Chico’s streets

I’d been hopeful following Walmart’s pledge to donate $1 million to efforts addressing Chico’s Camp Fire-compounded homeless crisis that a year-round, low-barrier shelter would open by the end of the year. In recent months, one of the biggest projects was known as the Orange Street Shelter, and its primary organizers, folks from the Safe Space Winter Shelter, actually were shooting for the end of summer.

Of course, we now know that plan isn’t feasible—at least not within the same scope. A complicated series of events—including the Jesus Center backing out as a partner on the project—led to that outcome. We learned on Tuesday (June 4) that Walmart decided to give the lion’s share of the million bucks to the Jesus Center for its so-called Renewal Center—a somewhat nebulous plan for a consolidated services facility that will take years to fund, build and start operating.

The Renewal Center could be great. That remains to be seen. The rub is that the community needs a low-barrier shelter now—before more people die on the streets. And sadly, that’s not an entirely infrequent occurrence.

In fact, on the same day Walmart made its announcement, I learned that a man was found deceased in the city center days earlier. I don’t know his name—only that he died in an alcove of a building on East Fourth Street, presumably across from City Hall.

When I heard about that man’s death, I immediately thought of Thomas Avakian—a homeless man I met three years ago at Safe Space. Avakian may have been this newspaper’s biggest fan—he read it religiously. He was just 51 years old when he passed away in January 2018 in a spot along West Sacramento Avenue. The CN&R learned of his death from a social media post.

I remember when local law enforcement used to alert the media when a body was found on the streets. It used to be deaths like that were a big deal. That hasn’t been the case for years, though.

A local homeless advocate told me about the aforementioned unnamed man. She also informed me that, on March 2, yet another homeless person died on the streets. His name was Vance Lee. A brief obituary I found online reads: “Vance was born on October 30, 1962, and passed on March 2, 2019. Vance was a resident of Chico, California, at the time of passing.”

How Lee ended up homeless or what he was like when he wasn’t in poor health is a mystery to me. But what I was told about the end of his days—as cancer overtook his body and disfigured his face—made me weep. Unsheltered life is brutal and death often is an event that goes unnoticed within the community at large.

Tragically, Walmart’s decision will result in the status quo—a community that doesn’t have adequate facilities and services for our burgeoning homeless population. But the real victims here are the homeless individuals who quite literally will suffer as a result. Without the expanded emergency shelter Orange Street would have provided, people like Avakian, Lee and the unnamed man will continue to live and die on the streets.