Homeless script flipped

Chico declares shelter crisis, with swing vote from “sit/lie” conservative

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien offers his analysis to the Chico City Council of the benefits of establishing a permanent Street Crimes Unit.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien offers his analysis to the Chico City Council of the benefits of establishing a permanent Street Crimes Unit.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

For local homeless service providers, a citywide shelter crisis declaration means more than just an acknowledgment that there is a threat to the health and safety of the city’s unsheltered.

For Caminar, it’s a chance to expand housing for mentally ill, chronically homeless people. For Chico Housing Action Team, it means the organization can move forward on Simplicity Village, a tiny home community for seniors. For Chico Unified School District, it’s a possibility to increase assistance for more than 500 homeless students.

In a swing vote that defied party lines, Councilman Andrew Coolidge voted in favor of declaring a citywide shelter crisis on Tuesday (Oct. 2) with his liberal colleagues. The council also discussed the possibility of fully funding a Chico Police Department Street Crimes Unit year-round.

With the declaration, Chico joined Oroville, Gridley and Butte County, allowing local service providers in these jurisdictions to vie for a $4.9 million one-time infusion from the state to address homelessness through its Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP).

Coolidge, who is the only incumbent conservative council member running for re-election this year, brought the topic forward along with the controversial sit/lie ordinance, which was discussed at the council’s first meeting in September and approved along party lines.

“I really think the solution is all solutions,” he told a full council chambers. “[Along with] requiring criminal transients to obey the law, it’s helping people who need help with a hand up,” he said, adding that the shelter crisis declaration is a “small step” in the right direction provided that the money is “allocated in the right way.”

Coolidge originally proposed to reserve 33 percent of the funds for the Jesus Center’s relocation project, aka the Renewal Center, but Butte Countywide Continuum of Care coordinator Jennifer Griggs clarified that is not possible. All applications countywide will go through the same vetting process before projects are approved by the CoC board, which is composed of city and county representatives as well as local service providers.

“All I can say is in good faith I will work with you … and maybe we can do something together collaboratively,” Griggs told the panel.

The council debated limiting the declaration to just one year, but Councilwoman Ann Schwab expressed an interest in not limiting the declaration “for consistency’s sake” with the other cities and Butte County. They compromised by adding a one-year review of the declaration. The vote went 4-3, with Councilman Mark Sorensen, Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer and Mayor Sean Morgan against.

Prior to a vote, Morgan said the shelter crisis will do nothing to address the people who are “service-resistant,” saying: “While I want the people doing good work to get money, I don’t know at what cost.”

He and the panel had just heard from 45 public speakers. Most were in favor, seeing it as a positive decision to assist service providers who are working hard on shoestring budgets to help the most needy in the community.

Another topic of particular interest to the community was the staffing of a permanent Chico Police Department Street Crimes Unit, with about 20 speakers addressing the panel.

The original proposal was to consider using $350,000 from the police overtime budget and $350,000 from waste-hauler franchise agreement funds, previously reserved expressly for roadways. This would staff a four-officer Street Crimes Unit year-round, focusing on theft, burglaries, weapon possession and drug sales. This year, the unit was staffed during the summer months by the officers who work in the south campus neighborhood during the school year.

Most speakers told the council that any money directed toward police needed to go toward prioritizing implicit bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention training, or preventative resources like mental health crisis response teams and social workers.

Rain Scher asked the council to provide more accountability for police when it comes to profiling, excessive force and murder. Scher is a member of the Justice for Desmond Phillips team, an advocacy group that was formed after Phillips, a 25-year-old experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by Chico Police officers on St. Patrick’s Day 2017.

“The people of Chico deserve to be safe, including safe from aggressive and trigger-happy cops. … A Street Crimes Unit will inherently target people of color and poor, homeless people,” Scher said. “Officers we have right now need more training. Don’t compromise … just so you can have more officers. Don’t spend limited funding on ineffective, punitive measures.”

Those who advocated for the Street Crimes Unit spoke to the increased safety they believe it provided to the community. “I believe that they do the best they can under very daunting circumstances,” said Nichole Nava. “I feel like these people are well-trained and I think that they follow the standards of the industry and I am proud of that.”

The panel ultimately moved to direct $186,000 in the police department’s overtime budget to send four recruits through the police academy, with a comprehensive discussion about how to fund the Street Crimes Unit to happen during the 2019-20 budget cycle. For now, the waste-hauler fees will continue to go toward road maintenance. The vote was 5-2, with Coolidge and Fillmer against.

Other meeting topics included a final reading for Stonegate, a 600-plus-unit development planned for south Chico on property that contains sensitive wetlands. Community members argued that a rushed discussion on the topic at the last council meeting was unfair to the citizens of Chico, who were given only one minute each to speak on the topic between 10-11 p.m. (See “‘Eleventh hour’ deliberations,” Newslines, Sept. 20.) It was approved on its second reading in a vote along party lines.

Enloe Medical Center’s relocation of its prompt care facilities to a new building on West East Avenue, near its Rehabilitation Center, was approved 4-2, with Schwab and Coolidge against and Councilman Karl Ory recused because his wife works at Enloe Prompt Care. Neighbors have expressed concerns about with potential noise, traffic and hours of operation (8 a.m. to 10 p.m.).