Nowhere to go
Council expands law aimed at homeless population, but doesn’t open restrooms overnight
Shortly after expanding an ordinance that specifically criminalizes urination and defecation on public property on Tuesday (March 1), the Chico City Council voted not to provide temporary overnight facilities for homeless people to relieve themselves.
This, despite a common refrain during the meeting from the general public, service providers and some council members: If the city extends the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property initiative—thereby prohibiting people throughout the city from sleeping, camping, pooping, peeing and keeping personal belongings on public property—it must also provide places to rest, use a toilet and store stuff.
“I question the sensibility of forcing people into services that don’t exist,” said Dan Everhart, a board member of the Chico Housing Action Team.
Councilwoman Tami Ritter, also the chair of the Internal Affairs Committee, led that panel—which includes Councilmembers Andrew Coolidge and Reanette Fillmer—in a discussion of the bathroom situation on Feb. 10. They voted unanimously to direct city staff to produce potential long-term solutions and recommend that the City Council consider placing portable toilets in the Municipal Center parking lot as a temporary measure.
According to a report presented by Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of Public Works, it would cost the city $150 a month to rent each portable toilet. However, since the toilets would be downtown and at high risk of vandalism, he recommended daily servicing, which would raise the cost to $436 a month. Permanent fixes include retrofitting public restrooms at City Plaza so they don’t lock from the inside and are more resistant to vandalism, at an estimated cost of $30,000; or building entirely new Portland Loo-style restrooms, which are extremely basic and built from heavy-gauge stainless steel, at a cost of $93,000 apiece.
However, the council’s discussion of fixed facilities was convoluted. Vice Mayor Sean Morgan suggested kicking the concept back to the Internal Affairs Committee for refining; Ritter then made a motion to rent a porta-potty. Before the matter comes before the council again, she said, “there are lots of people who are going to be going to the bathroom.
“But those people are not actually going to go in a bathroom—they’re going on sidewalks, in doorways, in parks, in alleys. … We can’t pretend that’s not going to happen. I agree that this is not a solution,” she concluded, “but we have to do something.”
Ritter’s motion split the council 3-3, with Mayor Mark Sorensen, Morgan and Fillmer dissenting. (Councilwoman Ann Schwab recused herself because she owns a business near the Chico Municipal Building.) Ritter then posed a question to Sorensen: Since the council isn’t providing a 24-hour restroom, shouldn’t they ask police to temporarily suspend enforcement of the public urination and defection aspect of the expanded ordinance?
“No,” Sorensen responded flatly. “You might be in support of those activities, but I find myself in opposition to those activities.”
The council then voted unanimously to send the discussion back to Internal Affairs.
The debate dates back to September, when the council voted 6-1 to approve the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property initiative, thereby prohibiting the storage of personal property on public land. It also established City Hall and the surrounding area, including City Plaza, as a “Civic Center” with an exhaustive list of prohibitions; extended the city’s existing sit/lie law to downtown building entrances; and allowed police officers to more easily cite homeless people for camping along Chico’s creeks and tributaries.
Upon the ordinance’s final reading in October, Fillmer argued that the law didn’t go far enough—that pushing homeless people out of the creeks and downtown would be detrimental to home and business owners in other areas of the city. At her urging, the council voted to revisit the ordinance in several months and consider the possibility of expanding it citywide.
However, that’s not how Fillmer framed it on Tuesday. “The goal of this ordinance was so the police department and service providers have more of a working relationship and are able to reach out together and talk to people,” she said. “It’s important that we extend this.”
Now amended to cast a wider net, the initiative came back before the council on Tuesday under a new moniker: the Offenses Against Public Property Ordinance.
In his report on the law’s enforcement, Sgt. Scott Zuschin, the leader of Chico PD’s TARGET team, explained that police are “still in the infancy stages of trying to address this complex social problem.” Police have issued one citation for a waterway violation, one for sit/lie, and one for storage of personal property in a public area. Additionally, police have responded to 563 calls regarding illegal camping and issued 34 citations. In tandem with service providers such as Stairways Programming, he said, officers are making an effort to establish connections with members of the homeless community.
“We want to build that foundation before getting into the violation aspect of this ordinance,” he said.
Indeed, by the accounts provided by recently homeless people at the meeting on Tuesday, police have embraced the council’s direction to enforce the ordinance humanely. Carrington Forbes, a former homeless youth, acknowledged having “a rough past” with Chico police. “But I’ve been noticing quite a few changes in the community,” he said. “Homeless people aren’t really afraid when police show up in the park anymore. … [Police] will just have a conversation and tell them what resources are available. It’s been amazing.”
Again, Ritter—the lone dissenting vote when the ordinance was originally passed—dug in her heels on its expansion. She lauded the police department’s engagement and compassion, but added, “To me, that reinforces that we don’t need an ordinance.”
Councilman Randall Stone joined her in dissenting, as the council voted 5-2 to amend the current ordinance, making it citywide.