Out of the cold

Council unanimously expands warming center criteria shortly after arrests outside City Hall

Richard Muenzer returns to the spot outside the City Council chambers, where he was arrested last week while seeking a safe, dry place to sleep.

Richard Muenzer returns to the spot outside the City Council chambers, where he was arrested last week while seeking a safe, dry place to sleep.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

On Monday night (Dec. 2), just before he was arrested outside of City Hall, Richard Muenzer thought, I’m going to jail because I’m homeless and I have nowhere to sleep.

He was sitting in a well-lit, dry alcove when he was approached by two Chico Police officers. In a cellphone video, Muenzer can be heard, frustration in his voice, asking them where he was expected to go, since the Torres Community Shelter was full. An officer responded that he did not know, but Muenzer couldn’t stay there—the city prohibits camping and sitting or lying on sidewalks.

So Muenzer said they’d need to ticket him or arrest him.

Turns out, he wasn’t the only one handcuffed that night. Two other men seeking shelter outside City Hall were arrested (though their charges also included possession of illegal drugs) and two others were cited. They’d violated a city law related to civic center hours of operation, adopted as part of the local Offenses Against Public Property ordinance in 2015.

Muenzer’s story illustrates Chico’s ongoing homeless crisis, and the recent cold snap prompted the council to respond. On Tuesday (Dec. 10), three progressive council members—Scott Huber, Karl Ory and Mayor Randall Stone—called for a special meeting to revisit the city’s “Code Blue” program criteria for opening a warming center, a service the city currently pays the Jesus Center to provide. While the panel did not bring up the arrests, several of the 17 members of the public who addressed the council on this item did, and nearly all advocated for more frequent warming center nights.

In response, the panel voted unanimously to do just that. The current criteria of 32 degrees or lower still will trigger a warming center. The additions, as proposed by Huber: days with temperatures of 45 degrees or lower where three-quarters of an inch of rain or more is forecast, as well as days projected to be 40 degrees or lower with winds of 15 miles per hour or more.

This isn’t set in stone just yet, however. The Jesus Center’s board of directors has to agree to the change in terms. It’s also possible that Safe Space Winter Shelter, a volunteer organization working to open a permanent location with 80 to 100 beds, could take it on. Angela McLaughlin, president of Safe Space’s board of directors, said the group is uniquely equipped to provide warming center services, but couldn’t do so until after Dec. 22, when it will open using its rotating shelter model at various churches.

The city currently has a $30,000 memorandum for cooling and warming center services with the Jesus Center in the 2019-20 fiscal year, and has expended about $8,000 so far, according to City Manager Mark Orme. He will bring back a new cost estimate, given the change of criteria, for the council to approve.

That night, Huber got choked up when he mentioned the four homeless people who have died on Chico’s streets this year, including a woman whose body was found the morning after Thanksgiving in Lindo Channel (her name and cause of death have yet to be released). Changing the warming center criteria, which he said were adopted “a little hastily” last March, is something the city can do.

“We have been and we are a failure,” he said. “And we’ll continue to fail if we don’t make some changes.”

Stone told the CN&R via phone that the deaths of homeless people on the streets also weighed heavily on his mind that night, as well as the arrests and citations outside council chambers. Though he said he was not sure changing the civic center’s hours is the answer, he added that rousting folks should be a last resort.

“It’s significant. Because this is the place where free speech occurs. This is where we address our government for redress of grievances, and people are sleeping in the alcoves,” he said. “How much more definitive does it get [that] this isn’t working?”

Chico’s Offenses Against Public Property ordinance has been criticized locally for years by homeless advocates for being cruel and a violation of people’s civil rights, and similar laws elsewhere are increasingly under the microscope. One in Boise, Idaho, was challenged by homeless citizens, and in September 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars cities from criminally prosecuting those sleeping outside on public property when they have no home or other shelter to go to. This case, Martin v. Boise, has advanced all the way to the Supreme Court.

It’s Chico PD’s take, however, that the case does not apply in this instance.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien told the CN&R that there have been many ongoing issues at City Hall “creating not only an unsanitary condition, but also an unsafe condition for all,” including a fire, a broken window, drug use, defecation and urination. In the past, people typically have moved along after warnings, but everything came to a head that night, he added.

“Of course we want people to get help, we want people out of the cold,” he said. “The issue for us is the safety of the building and those who use it, and that’s really the only motivation that we have.”

On Tuesday, when the council made the call on the warming center criteria, the crowd erupted into applause, and Muenzer, from where he stood at the back of the gallery, shouted, “Thank you.”