Chico Friends on the Street rally at council meeting
Every Sunday for more than two years, Melissa Holmberg has found herself at the City Plaza, providing free food and survival supplies to homeless folks.
A year ago, she went through some unfortunate circumstances—her car became her home until friends took her in. She had no money, no job.
“I never thought that I’d be living just like my friends on the street,” she told the City Council on Tuesday (April 3). “If you want to see the effects of trauma exponentially compound, then just take the roof out from over someone’s head.”
Though the topic of food giveaways at the City Plaza was not a scheduled part of an otherwise quiet, quick meeting, several members and supporters of Chico Friends on the Street showed up to address the council at the meeting’s end in response to comments made at the last council meeting, where Chico First members rallied to call for regulations regarding food-giving in public spaces.
Holmberg shared comments she said Mayor Sean Morgan made at a Chico First meeting she attended on Monday.
“I found the following quotes to be very disturbing: ‘The best that could happen in Chico is to provide no services, period, so they would be forced to leave,’” Holmberg read from her notes. She continued to say that the mayor announced that he only cared about Chico, not about the nearby communities in which Chico’s homeless population might end up, including Redding and Oroville, calling the latter a “Third World country.”
“Mayor Morgan insisted that Patrick Newman and his group Chico Friends on the Street are only sharing meals with homeless for purely selfish reasons, to make themselves feel good,” Holmberg continued. “Mr. Mayor, I just want you to know that we use our own money to provide for our friends on the street, the food and supplies, because we are compassionate and brave people. We are not afraid to look into the face of poverty and despair and we are not afraid to take action.”
Morgan refused to provide comment to the CN&R after the meeting. While seeking context for his comments, Holmberg told the CN&R via phone that she felt “he was dead serious about everything he said.”
Carol Eberling shared a different perspective with the council, that of being a child of the Great Depression who grew up in poverty. It’s comforting to remember the federal government’s compassionate responses to housing crises, she said: in the 1930s, a community called Greendale was created in Milwaukee, Wisc., with 572 units and rents ranging from $19-$46 per month to provide families relief from the shortage of low-income housing.
It’s a place that Eberling found beautiful upon visiting in the 1950s; a place she would have loved to have lived instead of the $7/month place her family could afford. Public housing assistance is necessary, she said.
“We have people living in the rough. Instead of complaining or making life harder for our street people, isn’t it better to look for a good solution, maybe working with [Chico Housing Action Team] or other people in Chico who are trying to help the homeless?” she said. “We’ve come a long way from the 1960s, when there was warmth and love and hope for the future. We need to find a way to create compassionate solutions for Chico’s current homeless population.”
Also on Tuesday, Robert Jones addressed the council as a CFOTS member. There is a pervasive narrative in Chico that demonizes, dehumanizes and disparages people living in extreme poverty, including veterans, those with disabilities or brain injuries and those suffering from addiction, the Chico State philosophy professor said.
“On display are the antecedents of what has, in the past, led to some of the most vile and repugnant expressions of a corrupted human nature,” Jones said. “My involvement with Chico Friends on the Street is not motivated by charity but rather by expression of my constitutionally guaranteed right to participate in a weekly protest of criminalization, failure to provide restroom access and the entire direction our city has taken in respect to visible poverty and our shelter crisis.”
As for the items on Tuesday night’s agenda, the council chose to start treating short-term rentals (think AirBnB and Vacation Rentals by Owner/VRBO) like hotels, which means the city will begin collecting a 10 percent transient occupancy tax (or ToT) on reservations. How they are going to do so is the question: City Administrative Services Director Scott Dowell said he is going to propose the most efficient option, which, in some cities, has meant contracting with a company that works directly with short-term rental sites to collect the tax and give it to the city.
The ordinance comes back for a second reading before going into effect. Once it does, Chicoans with short-term rental properties will have to get a business license (an annual fee of $18 for three to five rooms; $18 plus $1 per room for residences with more than five). The vote was 5-1, with Councilman Andrew Coolidge voting against and Councilman Randall Stone recusing himself because his business generates revenue from AirBnB.
Other decisions worth noting:
• The council unanimously directed $50,000 from the general fund to the Chico Police Department’s radio system, which has broken transmitters.
• An agreement with the downtown property-based business improvement district was approved. Effective through 2022, it outlines important terms, including adherence to the Brown Act, record retention requirements and a $500,000 bond to protect against fraud. The PBID organization requested $17,000 in additional annual funding from the city, explained as reflecting the “general benefit” of the service being provided, most of which comes from the PBID Ambassadors. The city pays about $70,000 into the PBID, as it makes up 15 percent of the property assessments that fund the organization. The council chose not to make any motion on the request.
• Public Works will use $1.5 million in gas tax funding to reconstruct a portion of The Esplanade from Lindo Channel to East Avenue in spring 2019.