More tent talk

Local activist draws up proposal for city-sanctioned homeless campground

When it comes to housing the homeless, a tent city might be what Chico needs, says Charles Withuhn, an avid local advocate for all things related to trees and homelessness. A regular volunteer for Safe Space, Chico’s rotating winter shelter, he sees people on a daily basis who just need respite from the freezing temperatures and potential for police entanglements. And, unfortunately, there just aren’t enough beds to go ’round.

For that reason, he supports the idea of an organized campground for people without homes. In fact, he’s gone so far as to begin the process of getting one approved in Chico. It’s still in its infancy, but he has a name—A OK Chico Campground—and a general schematic, with tent spaces to accommodate 22 adults and 12 children, barbecue areas, portable toilets, showers, laundry facilities and trash bins.

“This proposal, A OK Chico Campground, is a temporary and transitional housing project that could get 34 homeless people off the street in the shortest period of time for the smallest investment,” reads Withuhn’s proposal, which he presented informationally to the city’s Internal Affairs Committee last week (Jan. 11).

He was inspired by The Farm, Joel Castle’s unsanctioned but burgeoning homeless camp on the south side of town along Comanche Creek. As of last weekend, with Safe Space full and turning people away, and Torres Community Shelter near capacity, there were 55 people seeking refuge at The Farm.

Withuhn pointed to a specific moment, while visiting the site, that got him moving on A OK. Two young homeless people he knew arrived at The Farm and he watched their initial reaction.

“To see the look in their eyes, the realization that they would not get rousted by police in the night for the first time in months …” he said, trailing off. That got him started.

With the backing of CHAT (Chico Housing Action Team), which runs Safe Space, his plan emerged. Withuhn took stats and ideas from other cities where homeless campgrounds have succeeded—such as Portland, Ore., whose 10-year-old Dignity Village has become a model for other communities. Dignity Village started as a tent city and evolved into a tiny house village. As Withuhn pointed out, several studies indicate reduction in crime and significant cost savings associated with housing individuals (even in tents) vs. leaving them to fend for themselves on the streets.

“We know what doing what we’re doing gets us, and we can do better,” Withuhn said.

Most people in the community agree that something needs to be done, but nobody seems to know exactly what to do. City Councilman Randall Stone, who chairs the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, says that’s partly because of differing takes on the issue. Some people argue that providing services and housing for those in need invites more like them to town, so they choose law enforcement measures over providing more services.

That approach has been widely debunked, Stone argued by phone. In fact, Butte County recently was found to have lost some funding for services because of laws in Chico criminalizing homelessness. Stone acknowledged that he did initially vote to approve one such law, the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property ordinance, but, after realizing he’d made a mistake, voted against it when it came back for expansion.

“We cannot cite or arrest our way out of vagrancy issues. It is not possible,” he said. “To assume we can come even close with law enforcement is wasting our time.”

Stone said he’s spoken with Withuhn about A OK, which Withuhn will present to the task force next month, but is not familiar with the details. On the surface, he said, he supports the idea but perhaps not in its current form. He’d prefer to see something more like a tiny house village, a mobile home park or, pointing to San Diego as an example, turning an industrial building into a shelter. Those options would provide better shelter and be easier to implement from a zoning perspective, he said.

Mark Wolfe, the city’s community development director, confirmed that camping in any other than a recreational form is not allowed within city limits and would require an amendment to the municipal code.

Whatever happens, Stone is hopeful that Withuhn’s proposal will spark action on a meaningful level.

“The discussion is being had, and I’m thankful for that,” he said.