Keeping the faith

The long, hard road to Chico’s shelter for the homeless

For years, Chico’s homeless people were housed during winters at the National Guard Armory on the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds through a program operated by the Salvation Army. In 1998, after the fairgrounds rented the armory to a charter school, the homeless were left, well, even more homeless.

Around the same time, Chico City Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, who was once homeless for a time herself, began the difficult task of locating a permanent shelter space by establishing the Homeless Task Force. At first, the homeless were temporarily housed in motels by the Community Action Agency, an effort that quickly proved unfeasible because of costs and lack of supervision.

Faith Lutheran Church and its pastor at the time, Rev. Carl Wilfrid, then proposed a plan that offered a revolving schedule of local churches taking turns providing shelter during winter months, moving the entire operation to a different church every two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Homeless Task Force created a nonprofit, the Chico Community Shelter Partnership, that worked with local churches in organizing and running the homeless program while attempting to obtain a new shelter—“a tough enterprise and all-encompassing job” Jarvis says.

“At first I think we were all a little naïve,” she recalls. “Ten years earlier [former Councilmember] Michael McGinnis was involved and had gotten close to a permanent place on 19th and Park, but the neighbors stepped in. … We thought we could find a place relatively soon. But the CCSP, being new, didn’t have the clout and had to build its reputation.”

After a few emotional disappointments trying to locate a site, Jarvis said the low point came after the task force thought it had secured the old Municipal Building downtown, only to be thwarted by public outcry and a 4-3 council vote.

“Businesses came out so strongly against us, it kind of felt like an affront to our efforts,” she says.

After that, Jarvis and others decided to be “more analytical” about the process and, with the help of Greg Burton, a Chico State University student, made a list of six places that met shelter zoning and transportation requirements. But city officials were also asking political questions: Was the shelter really needed? Should religious projects receive funding? (The Jesus Center, which requires participants to pray, has since weaned itself from government funding, which stipulates no mandatory religiosity.)

“The CCSP was never religious. Our philosophy has always been: These are our brothers and sisters, and we need to provide them with a safe place to sleep during the winter,” Jarvis says.

As the rotating church program became more popular, local businesses began to raise more money for CCSP, enhancing its reputation as an organizational entity. Many Chico residents pitched in, donating $75 for purchase of a square foot of the facility.

“I really think the church system was a blessing in disguise,” says Mary Flynn. “It turned out to be the single best thing as far as galvanizing community support.”

The big breakthrough finally came on June 5, 2001, when the city agreed to purchase the land near Costco on a 4-3 vote, with Steve Bertagna joining council liberals as the swing vote. When the vote came in, council chambers erupted in applause and standing ovation for those homeless advocates who had persevered.

“It was such an explosive experience,” Jarvis laughs. “For many people, this has been such a labor of love—it felt like we had given birth.”

Now, as the new permanent site opens, the CCSP hopes that it will be better able to broaden its base of support and still rely on the faith community for support.

“We still want those groups to support us, but now that we have our permanent building and a good track record, I think we’ll see even more diverse groups coming to support us with things like meals and donations,” Flynn adds.