Out of sight, out of mind
Protesting the ouster of two homeless-outreach programs from City Plaza
We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.
I had a box of bread for the homeless, a few picket signs and some leaflets: a stack of one-page summaries describing why I was standing on the corner of Fifth and Main. I’d parked in one of those diagonal spaces, up against the mostly concrete Chico City Plaza. It was a still, blue-sky day and traffic was light—perfect conditions for a first-time activist. I was determined to stand on the corner from 3 to 5, on that mid-December Sunday afternoon. I did—and it was a long two hours.
I was on the same corner of the plaza where Orchard Church had served food and given comfort to the homeless—every Sunday evening for more than five years. It was the church’s removal from the plaza that got me out there—standing alone and with no small degree of discomfort. My sign read, “APARTHEID HAPPENED HERE.”
Nelson Mandela had died 10 days earlier and we had just sent our homeless out of the town square—a case of discrimination, if ever there was one. My sign made sense to me, but probably not to any of the passing motorists—most of whom were merciful enough to look straight ahead. A few people on foot or bikes took notice—so I at least had a chance to explain: “Well, see, Orchard Church got moved behind the municipal building, out of the heart of town. Hidden! Apart-hide, get it? And that was wrong, wrong, wrong.”
It was wrong.
You see, I had fallen in love with this little weekly gathering—mostly on summer evenings. I watched the way middle-class-looking “church” people would walk up to men and women, many of whom were clearly destitute, and engage them in conversation. I watched people following the Gospel I learned as a Catholic boy—the Gospel of love for the stranger, the Gospel of love for the person who is sometimes the hardest to love. It was inspiring, in a world where inspiration is often hard to come by.
I’d never joined them in prayer or the work they did. Never thought I’d fit in and, frankly, I was not particularly motivated to work with homeless people. I rationalized that I’d done my bit of social work, throughout my life: about a decade working with developmentally disabled adults and people with various mental-health challenges. I was down in the plaza for an evening stroll—not to go out of my way to meet street people.
The story turned one day last summer when Jim Culp, the pastor of Orchard Church, was put on notice: His program needed a permit from the city to stay at the plaza.
Culp spent months jumping through hoops, and the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission ultimately voted 6-0 to issue a three-month permit. But, while pondering a future of endless public hearings and yearly fees of nearly $3,000, Orchard Church was next faced with a challenge by conservative Councilman Sean Morgan and mega-property owner Wayne Cook. Cook filed an appeal against the permit, since Morgan, as a politician, could not do so himself.
Various homeless issues had gotten my attention in the summer and fall of 2013, but it was when I read that Morgan and Cook were attempting to torpedo the church’s hard-won permit that I finally became engaged. I prepared—for the first time in about 20 years—a statement to the City Council. It read, in part:
“The services of Orchard Church have caused no harm and done great good and it is a travesty that this discussion is even taking place.
Mr. Cook, who has made this appeal, owns a large aggregation of income-generating property, along with a tower overlooking the same plaza where street people are fed and made welcome in our community. This tower stands above his Hotel Diamond and Johnnie’s Restaurant and Lounge—which were, incidentally, built with the financial assistance of the city of Chico. It strikes me as a medieval spectacle: The rich man in the tower looking down on the destitute, and demanding they be removed.
“But this issue is bigger than Wayne Cook and Orchard Church. This is about our city government being heavily influenced by a few well-organized people with a lot of income property. It’s time, now, to send a message back: You, the financially elite, don’t get to decide who wanders the streets, or how they dress, or whether they are worthy to eat a meal in a city park.
“Orchard Church represents the generous side of Chico. I hope this council will put an end to the bullying and set a new course toward fairness, decency and hope.”
I never delivered this public comment, nor did the public or council ever weigh in on the subject of the appeal. City Manager Brian Nakamura and Pastor Culp brokered a compromise that relocated the church program to behind the Chico Municipal Center. The eleventh-hour deal came just before the City Council meeting, circumventing the public process that was to unfold on the night of Nov. 19. Instead of a contentious public hearing and a vote on the appeal, Culp went to the podium and graciously accepted the arrangement. There was some light applause. But, for me, there was a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach—something was very wrong.
I slept poorly that night, and before sunrise had written a “letter to the editor” to both local newspapers. I condemned the deal as a compromise that served the interests of Wayne Cook and the financial elite, at the expense of a model program—a program which I saw no good reason to punish.
This view was not commonly held. Everywhere I turned, the deal was hailed as a sensible compromise. This made the issue even more interesting. Was I wrong to be so rigid in my thinking? Was there really that big a difference between locations?
On Nov. 20, I went to the corner of the plaza, where the church had been working, and I took the walk to the east side of the municipal building. As I stood in the new location, it was obvious why this move was significant. The new location is hidden from the thoroughfares of downtown—the municipal building stands like a Berlin Wall between the homeless and the plaza.
It occurred to me that this new location was like the back of the bus in any Southern city 50 years ago. People would be fed, but because they are viewed as second-class citizens, they would get fed where we—the general public—were far less likely to see them. Indeed, the homeless were sent a message that is painful to contemplate, even as I write this now: You, the inferior and undesirable ones, are not worthy to be seen and embraced in the public square of our town. We are hiding you. We are marginalizing you. But we want to feel good about ourselves, so we will feed you over there—in the shadows.
Anyone who doubts this should ask one simple question: Why else were they moved?
The more I pondered this issue, the angrier I got. This led to a public-records request, and correspondence and conversations with Pastor Culp, park commissioners, City Council members, the park manager, people from the Chico Peace and Justice Center, heroic and amazing homeless people, friends, the Downtown Ambassadors, private security guards, people from Food Not Bombs, insightful and affirming members of the Quaker community, baby boomers, downtown merchants, and random people on the street.
My first step was to request whatever city documents I could obtain: everything from when the park ranger first warned the church, to the council meeting of Nov. 19. Walking up the stairs of the municipal building—and even parking my truck in the city lot—was a bit unnerving. What the hell was I doing there? I was bothering people, and I had no clue how to approach anyone for any of this. I was relieved when I found City Clerk Deborah Presson to be a kind, intelligent and helpful public servant.
Ultimately, on reading the documents, I was impressed with the diplomatic language that Culp used in the face of a painful episode of scapegoating. It was evident that the new location was offered at the end of a brutal bureaucratic marathon. The Morgan/Cook appeal hearing was imminent—which would have provided the least empathetic and most backward voices in the community another chance to pound on the podium and demand more social cleansing.
In my own conversations with Pastor Culp, it was clear that he did not want to leave the plaza, but the complexity and expense associated with the permit process made the new location appealing enough to justify accepting the change. One sentence from an email summarized his position: “I agree that we have been unfairly targeted and I would have loved to continue to meet in the plaza, but not with the restrictions that the BPPC [Bidwell Park and Playground Commission] would require of us.”
But, it was evident that regardless of whether Culp held the removal to be right or wrong, or desirable or undesirable, it was always a matter of conscience for me. I did, though, seek the opinions of others, as I questioned the validity of my own response. This led to taking the pulse of Chico on the homelessness “problem” in general, along with the issue of the relocation.
In talking with members of the ’60s generation, I found many who told me how difficult it had become to coexist with the homeless. There was a distinct lack of outrage regarding the recent raft of anti-homeless initiatives—the sit/lie ordinance, private guards, etc. It seemed a little like some of my peers had an imaginary contract guaranteeing them a retirement in Pleasantville, USA. This made little sense to me. I don’t see my generation as having done anything that remotely qualifies us to live out our years in utopia. If anything, we have embraced a culture of competition and consumerism unlike any before us—and that, it seems to me, is more likely to lead to a dystopian future.
I got some insight into the thinking of the landlord class, as I toured the town with the salaried leader of a downtown volunteer group—a service that does a lot of good work on the streets of Chico. We encountered an owner of a swath of downtown property, who appeared to be on intimate terms with my guide. He gazed into the plaza and pointedly said, “What’s happening? It looks like there are a lot more of the undesirable element in the plaza today.” The weather was nice and homeless people were basking in the sun. It appeared to be a message for my guide: He was possibly failing to do his job. Though, how exactly he was supposed to do this job, I’m not sure—since there is a mountain of case law upholding the right of law-abiding street people to occupy the public space.
Among merchants, there seemed to be a wide diversity of opinion—some of it very empathetic. However, one young woman, working at the Saturday farmers’ market, summed up the position of more than a few when she said, “Ever been to Yosemite? Have you seen the signs? ‘Please Don’t Feed the Bears!’” I have to admit that this statement reduces something complex to a neat formula. For me, the only answer is a question: If you had a schizophrenic son or daughter or brother or sister or father or mother who, despite your best efforts, went wandering the country, would you want them to be loved—by someone, somewhere?
It was interesting to sound-out eight or 10 homeless folks on the subject of Orchard Church’s removal. The symbolic significance of the move was not lost on them—and many expressed appreciation that anyone cared enough to ask the question.
It came to my attention, after a couple of weeks of trying to grasp how the Orchard Church could have been coerced into its move, that Food Not Bombs had been bumped from the plaza as well. A passionate young activist, carrying dirty dishes from the Saturday food-service program—which is now serving food on the front lawn of the municipal building—described wanting to “get arrested” in protest of having been forced from the plaza. I later learned that a board member of the Chico Peace and Justice Center offered to join him. Ultimately, no consensus was reached and no act of civil disobedience was undertaken. I was heartened that it was seriously considered.
In the final analysis, there was nothing in any conversation that led me to see these relocations as anything other than morally repugnant acts of discrimination.
This realization led me to the corner of Fifth and Main streets.
My fifth Sunday there was very different than the first. For starters, I had settled on a new sign: “Orchard Church, Food Not Bombs, BRING THEM BACK.” I also wasn’t alone. My daughter was in town and she brought a friend—along with a basket of food for the homeless. The usual street characters stopped by to chat, and a friend from the Quaker meeting was there, too. I felt grateful to friends who had dropped by, for many hours, over the previous weeks. Also, to my neighbor who had come out, on every Sunday she could, and taught me a lesson in mutual support—a lesson I endeavor to go on learning. Going it alone can be pretty useful in getting an outsider’s perspective, but having a few affirming companions is much better for the long haul.
Leafleting at the Saturday farmers’ market has been almost as interesting as my time at the plaza and far more conversational—especially sitting on the curb, with two homeless friends. People often stop to discuss issues. It’s important to have the conversation—it means that things are being noticed.
In a very recent exchange with Pastor Culp, it was clear that Orchard Church has accepted its new location as a permanent home. I was disappointed to hear this. But I can hardly be the judge of that decision. Nevertheless, I insist it should never have been made necessary, being a consequence of the “madness of crowds”—irrationality that often results in the brutalization of people.
I ran into that same activist from Food Not Bombs the other day. The group may return to the plaza with food service that requires no equipment set-up. I love his spirit.
Ultimately, compassion in the governance of our city will turn on small details. The seeming subtlety of this issue makes it all the more important. Regimes of social cleansing and genocide develop incrementally. No one asks us a question one day that neatly encapsulates the moral dilemma: Shall we implement the “final solution” today? Yes or no? Do you approve of ethnic cleansing, eugenics? These things happen by inches. How we respond to the more challenging problems of the future will be determined by whether the needle of our moral compass is allowed to guide us, right here and right now.