Hiding the poor

Chico’s proposed solution to homelessness, including moving the Jesus Center, comes at a great cost

The author organizes a weekly citizen-led homeless outreach effort called Chico Friends on the Street.

If only we could depend on the will of the majority, as if it were a moral compass. Alas, it has never been so. At the Chico City Council meeting on Nov. 7, it was clear the vast majority—from landlords to the Downtown Chico Business Association to the council itself—see transforming the Jesus Center, from a downtown soup kitchen into an industrial-area intake center, as the right move. It’s nothing of the sort.

The act of hiding the poor is as old as civilization itself. In this case, we are not only proposing to hide the poor, we are “navigating” them to nowhere: No amount of time on a “transformational campus” will cause more housing to spring up out of the ground. But, a campus/compound/containment center is one way a failing society can hold people, as we fail some more.

The only honorable direction is “housing first,” as described by Lloyd Pendleton, the former director of the Utah Homeless Task Force. All other “solutions” are Band-Aids. Some Band-Aids come at the cost of violating civil liberties and fundamental humanitarian principles—and others do not.

The “hospitality” model, long the standard of Christian charity, offers support with minimal conditions, leaving autonomy and rights in place. On the other hand, “reform” models offer “services” on a conditional basis.

Reform models undermine civil liberties to the degree they are applied coercively or paternalistically—generally through a combination of deprivation and law enforcement excesses. An Enterprise-Record editorial celebrated these elements in the proposed “center”: “single point entry,” “identification cards required” and “can’t come and go as they do now.” A prison-like facility. And, as such, highly compatible with the interests of those who wish to remove the homeless from the public space.

Since most homeless will remain largely unhoused, these questions remain: What is in the best interests of the homeless and our commonly held constitutional liberties? How do we resist the day-to-day agenda of those gutting the Constitution in order to sequester the poor? And, in what way does the current direction not exemplify the characteristics of a proto-police state?