Protests continue

Council keeping sit/lie for now, more on the syringe program later

A crowd of anti-syringe-program protesters surrounds Josh Lang (center) and those standing in support of the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition.

A crowd of anti-syringe-program protesters surrounds Josh Lang (center) and those standing in support of the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Tensions were high before Tuesday night’s (Feb. 18) Chico City Council meeting started.

Outside the chambers, a massive crowd marched around the civic center, chanting “Save our town” and “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Chico needles got to go.” The group was protesting two controversial items on the agenda: a local syringe-distribution program and the possible repeal of Chico’s sit/lie ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying on public rights-of-way.

A small group of counter-protesters stood in the center, calling for the opposite: support of the syringe program, which is endorsed by Butte County Public Health and authorized by state Public Health, and the repeal of sit/lie. It got heated between the groups—police intervened in a few minor skirmishes.

Inside the chambers, just after the meeting began, Mayor Randall Stone tried to preemptively quell additional conflict. “Before you feel like you’re going to scream out loud … just take a deep breath and wait a couple of seconds,” he said. “We want to hear your voices, but we don’t need to attack each other and forget that we’re neighbors.”

However, the night still got rowdy. Case in point: A woman was escorted out of the chambers by police.

In her opening comments on sit/lie and a similar law known as the Offenses Against Public Property ordinance, Vice Mayor Alex Brown told the council that it is inappropriate for the city to enforce policies that outlaw sitting, lying, sleeping or having property in public spaces when “the reality is, the number of people experiencing homelessness in our community exceeds the number of shelter beds or housing units available.” (Discussion on the latter ordinance—which, among other things, prohibits storage of property in public and possession of syringes without a prescription—eventually was punted to a future meeting.)

Most of the public echoed Brown’s comments, and called for rescinding sit/lie. Several called it unconstitutional, saying it criminalizes homelessness.

Conversely, those who argued in favor of keeping the law on the books argued it is a useful tool for police to mitigate public nuisances, manage public space safely, protect businesses and refer people to social services.

Public speaker Ryan Schwab pointed out that the city can rescind sit/lie and it still will be illegal to obstruct entrances—he referred to a separate section of the city municipal code, titled “Obstructing entrance to buildings.”

When Councilwoman Ann Schwab asked Police Chief Mike O’Brien if that law could be used instead, he replied that it depended on where the offense was occurring. He noted that no citations were written for sit/lie in 2019, because people typically comply when asked to move along.

Immediately after the public comment period ended, Councilman Scott Huber said he was willing to compromise—he knows business owners who want sit/lie but also have said they want to invest money toward shelter and other solutions to homelessness.

“I’m going to suggest that we test out whether or not this is a sincere effort on the part of our business leaders to assist in solving the shelter challenge or merely a display,” he said.

He made a motion that the law remain on the books for six months, at which time the council will evaluate enforcement and progress on creating more shelter beds. In the meantime, staff will reach out to the county about enlisting a social worker to accompany Chico police during sit/lie violations, and City Attorney Andrew Jared will prepare an ordinance modification for council approval eliminating financial penalties—police would provide service referrals instead.

This ultimately passed 4-3, with Councilman Karl Ory, Brown and Stone against. Before that, however, Brown made a motion to rescind the law, which failed.

Also on Tuesday, the syringe access program offered by the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition (NVHRC) was under the spotlight. Right away, Councilman Sean Morgan advocated for pursuing a ban—this ostensibly could be pursued through litigation under the premise of a potential California Environmental Quality Act violation.

“There’s no compassion in giving drug kits to addicts,” Morgan said. “I don’t care what statistics anybody has.”

The item drew more than 50 speakers—most showed up to advocate for the group and its work. Among the supporters were Chico State faculty and representatives from the national Harm Reduction Coalition, who cited evidence that such programs decrease the rate of hepatitis C and HIV, and increase referrals to treatment. Detractors said syringes are not being properly disposed of, and are being picked up by police.

Addressing the council, NVHRC volunteers emphasized that they’re willing to meet with the police department and council members to discuss ways to improve their program. Though they’ve been active since mid-2018, providing syringe disposal and the opioid overdose-reversing drug nalaxone, the syringe program started in November 2019.

Schwab recently witnessed the program’s Sunday services and was impressed. She said NVHRC is “stepping up to fulfill a need in our community” given the county’s high rate of opioid use.

The council decided to have NVHRC report back in about 30 days with its plans to improve services. In the meantime, city staff will research the outcomes of such programs in other cities, including those that have pursued prohibition.

Councilwoman Kasey Reynolds, who has been an outspoken critic of the program, made that motion, which passed 5-2, with Morgan and Brown against.

Brown said she felt the lack of specificity could set the group up for failure. Reynolds replied that wasn’t her intent. “I want this to be a success,” she said. “I want the community to have involvement, and I want us to move forward.”