Fountain of infamy

Local man’s photo unleashes a wave of criticism

William Jasper Henry Townsend, whom most people know simply as Jasper, sleeping at City Plaza a few years ago.

William Jasper Henry Townsend, whom most people know simply as Jasper, sleeping at City Plaza a few years ago.

Photo By tom gascoyne

William Jasper Henry Townsend’s presence is hard to miss when he rests or sleeps on a downtown bench or sidewalk. Townsend—who is known around town as Jasper, though he prefers to go by William—gained some notoriety in September when a photo of him sitting in a downtown fountain was published on the front page of the Chico Enterprise-Record.

The photo triggered a letter to the editor from Harold Ey who chided the “do-nothing liberal majority on the City Council” for allowing such abhorrent behavior and encouraging “more Jaspers” to come to town.

E-R Editor David Little devoted his Sunday column to the photo and said response suggested “most readers have had enough. They are hesitant to go downtown, particularly with children, because they’ll be subjected to transients bathing in fountains, bums sleeping in City Plaza, dog fights, offensive sights, odors, piles of vomit, excrement and who knows what else.”

But there’s a lot more to Townsend than that now-infamous photo.

During a recent interview while sitting on a bench outside the Chico Municipal Center, Townsend shared his story. He said he gets “harassed” by the police regularly—he has 17 Butte County Superior Court cases, most for illegal camping and failure to appear in court. He was arrested for three warrants on Oct. 23 while sitting on Second Street outside the House of Bamboo restaurant. The warrants were issued for failure to appear on an illegal camping charge. He had a court date set in Oroville for Nov. 7, which he didn’t attend.

Townsend said he has no family to help him and had no comment about any social-service support. “That is something I’m working on, so I don’t want to talk about it right now,” he said.

Pastor Jim Culp of the Orchard Church, which offers services to the homeless, said he’s known Townsend for a few years. “Part of the problem is finding that balance between getting the support he needs and his keeping the independence he wants to maintain,” Culp said.

Townsend is not a transient, Culp pointed out, though he is incorrectly labeled as such.

In fact, Townsend has spent most of his life in Chico. He was born in Eureka in April of 1979 and was brought to Chico the same year. “I’ve been here [almost] 34 years,” he said.

Townsend said he attended elementary and junior-high school locally until his grandmother, who raised him, sent him to a group home. “I have a kind of a behavioral problem, so my grandma, who was my mom at the time, decided to ship me off to a group home up in Shasta County,” he said. “I was about 13 at the time, and when I turned 18, I just said, ‘See ya,’ and came back to Chico.”

His grandfather, who played the role of his father, died when Townsend was 9 years old, and his grandmother is currently in a convalescent home. “My natural mother, well, I often think that she never loved me, in order to give me up like that,” he said. “But I found out that she was as irresponsible as I am sometimes.”

Townsend said he is treated well by other homeless people.

“But most of the more—ha-ha—fancier of our citizens just think I’m straight-up trash ’cause I’m homeless.”

One person who sees him differently is Culp: “There is lots of kindness in him and I see him interact and serve with [other homeless] people,” Culp said. “They are quick to serve one another as well. Most of them want to be part of our community, Jasper included.”