Déjà vu

Revisiting a law that’s symbolic only of our community’s lack of will to address homelessness in any meaningful way

Facebook is a cesspool of homeless-bashing forums. I’m not going to name the groups whose feeds are awash in hatred for the down and out. Instead, I’ll describe a video I watched on a local page that was accompanied by a comment that seems representative of the prevailing attitude.

Picture a park bench with giant metal spikes that retract from the seat when it’s fed money. A man walks up and sits after inserting a coin and watching the barbs disappear. What the footage doesn’t note is that this seemingly medieval contraption is the decade-old creation of a German artist.

That biting social commentary was lost on a Chico man who said: “This is awesome—it would certainly alleviate the bums sleeping on the benches.”

Based on the vitriolic speech I see online daily, that comment is pretty tame. Still, it provides a snapshot of the sentiment shared by a large segment of our community.

These are the same folks who think we can legislate our way out of the ill effects of homelessness—say, by implementing laws like the sit/lie ordinance. Next Tuesday (Sept. 4), five years after its initial adoption, the law is back before the City Council. Never mind the fact that it’s currently illegal to block public rights of way—yes, cops already have the authority to roust people from sidewalks and alcoves.

Clearly, this is a symbolic gesture from a panel with no will to address the issue in a meaningful way.

My question for the constant complainers: Where should homeless people hang out during the day and sleep at night? No, really? Please send a letter to the editor at cnrletters@newsreview.com.

Here’s the caveat: Responses must account for the fact that homeless people are members of our community. In other words, it’s not fair to say “some other town.” That’s a cop-out. Also unacceptable: “You damn bleeding-heart libruls take ’em!” Believe me, that one’s overplayed. And stupid.

Let’s talk in real terms about homelessness. I’ll start by noting its scope. According to the most recent homeless census, 1,096 people in Chico are considered homeless. Of that number, 433 are unsheltered (meaning they live outdoors—likely in parks and creekbeds).

Think about that. Every night, hundreds of people hunker down outside. Sleeping among the elements isn’t exactly ideal. When weather is extreme, it creates a life-threatening scenario.

Most reasonable folks recognize that the hundreds of people living unsheltered in Chico have a ripple effect on the community as a whole. We see this in the form of litter—including even human excrement—in both public and private spaces. Many of us also have seen homeless folks doing illicit drugs out in the open.

I get the frustration. I get the concern. But castigating these people only contributes to a pack mentality. I’d like to see city leaders acknowledge that public defecation is the result of a lack of public restrooms. I’d like to hear them acknowledge the fact that we don’t have the services in place—a day center and a fully dedicated wet shelter, for example—to give homeless folks an alternative to life on the streets.

Mostly, I’d like for the council and the community to think deeper and show some compassion. Is that too much to ask?