Power to the poor

Activism, entertainment and information offered at Poor People’s Palooza

Bill Mash has filmed roughly 500 video vignettes with homeless people from all over California.

Bill Mash has filmed roughly 500 video vignettes with homeless people from all over California.

Photo by Ken Smith

Poor People’s Palooza:
The event will be held from 4-9 p.m. Monday (Jan. 18) at Chico Country Day School. Tickets on a sliding scale of $10-$25.

After experiencing homelessness as a youth, Bill Mash lived what he calls a “normal life”—military service, marriage, kids and a high-paying job as a program manager with Hewlett-Packard in the Bay Area, where he spent 25 years. But after his retirement funds ran out in 2012, he once again took to the streets.

The choice was partly a conscious one—he’d resolved to “walk with the homeless” and live humbly, filming conversations with other homeless people with the hope that the stories he collects can lead to better understanding of the homeless experience—but he also believes it was his only option. “It wasn’t a drill … I had no money,” he said during a recent interview.

It was one of those conversations that opened his eyes to a bigger picture: “I was under a bridge in Garberville, talking to this guy and he said, ‘No, dude, you’re not getting it, you’re missing the whole point … it’s not about homelessness; it’s about poverty.’”

Mash’s realization that homelessness was just one piece of a much bigger problem was solidified by a fellow homeless advocate who told him, “The next time someone says homelessness is a choice, ask them why only poor people make that choice.”

Mash stopped walking when he came to Chico in 2014, and joined the local activist community. His first direct action was organizing the Poor People’s Palooza on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that year to raise awareness about poverty’s roots and results. Homeless people and other community members gathered at the Chico City Plaza, to eat donated food, learn about services, and express themselves through chalk drawings and other media. The event continued every Sunday for several months.

The Palooza returned last year as a film festival featuring some of Mash’s videos at the now-defunct 100th Monkey Café, with proceeds benefiting the 6th Street Center for Youth and Mash’s own outreach efforts.

The third annual Poor People’s Palooza andFilm Festival, subtitled “Affordable Housing Explained,” will take place Jan. 18 at Chico Country Day School. NVHT and Youth for Justice are hosting the event.

Youth for Justice is a program, also spearheaded by Mash, in which the Chico Peace and Justice Center is open to homeless youth Wednesday mornings for a meal and to practice creative endeavors.

The NVHT is a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for other local groups looking to provide said housing. James Coles, the group’s executive director, explained that NVHT pursues local and other funding from public and private sources. The trust was formally established last August, and last year received a $500,000 state grant. The first project it has helped fund, a 15-unit apartment complex for homeless or at-risk people with disabilities and overseen by Northern Valley Catholic Social Services, will break ground in March.

“We want to raise awareness, and we also want to offer solutions,” Coles said of NVHT’s involvement. He is one member of a panel that will discuss affordable housing and answer questions from the public at the event. Other panel members include Ed Mayer, executive director of the Housing Authority of Butte County and Chico City Councilwoman Tami Ritter.

Coles said there is a serious lack of affordable housing for low-income individuals in Chico. Based on data he’s gathered from the North Valley Property Owners Association and other groups, he estimates there is a mere 2 percent vacancy rate of available homes in the city. He shared information from the city of Chico’s 2015-19 HUD Consolidated Plan, which estimated 7,130, or 21 percent, of all Chico households pay more than 50 percent of their income toward housing, and that 6,280 of those households are classified as “extremely low income.”

“These households are at risk of becoming unsheltered,” he said.