The mind-boggling decision to not allocate state funding to emergency shelters

I’m looking forward to a time when the threat of a natural disaster seems improbable in Butte County. I don’t think that’s possible anytime soon, especially for those who lived here not only during the Camp Fire but also the Oroville Dam crisis two years ago this month.

Speaking of the latter, the rain this week has been a source of anxiety on multiple levels. I can’t help but worry about flooding, especially in the regions scarred by the fire. The deluge has been unreal in terms of the drought landscape we’ve grown accustomed to living in over the past decade. Here in Chico, even, my friend’s cul-de-sac flooded Tuesday evening (Feb. 26). She ended up scrambling for sandbags in the middle of the night, and was fortunate that her home ultimately stayed dry.

At the top of my mind, of course, are homeless folks.

Safe Space Winter Shelter, a seasonal program run by volunteers, closed over the weekend, and the Torres Community Shelter is at capacity. Meanwhile, though the city recently decided to open a warming center on certain evenings, that move is predicated on the temperature hitting 32 degrees, a threshold that doesn’t take into account that even 49 degrees, the low on Tuesday, is dangerously cold in certain circumstances. That includes when it’s pouring rain and windy, as it was throughout that particular day and well into the night.

The inclement weather, among other things, makes the need for additional emergency shelter all the more urgent. Keep in mind, too, that the Camp Fire exacerbated our existing homeless crisis. We know this anecdotally, as we’ve interviewed numerous former Ridge residents who didn’t live on the streets prior to the Camp Fire but ended up there following the mega blaze.

Next month, the Butte County Continuum of Care (CoC) will conduct its biennial homeless census. The survey typically takes place in January, but was pushed back due to the wildfire. The results will be telling. About 2,000 people were counted in the county during the last such event in 2017. Of that number, about 750 people were classified as “unsheltered.” That is, they were literally living on the streets.

The overall number translates to roughly 1 percent of the county’s population. That may not sound like a lot, but Chico alone is home to more than half (about 1,100 people). Here, the rate of homelessness—120 per 10,000, according to the previous census—is more than seven times the national average. That’s part of the reason Chico’s City Council declared a shelter crisis. Other municipalities and the county did, too.

Another reason is that the designation made local programs and organizations eligible for state funds specifically earmarked for those that deal with homelessness. As CN&R’s Ashiah Scharaga reports this week, there’s some controversy on that front (see Newslines, page 10). The main issue is that, of the $4.8 million available, a specially formed CoC committee in charge of distributing the funds had not appropriated any for emergency shelter.

That decision has rightly come under scrutiny. It’s a heck of an omission. We need shelter beds, and we need them yesterday.