About 50 people speak up on proposed ordinances addressing ‘quality-of-life’ issues
Chico City Councilman Karl Ory asked Police Chief Mike O’Brien a pointed question during the panel’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (June 5), during which the council discussed a raft of controversial potential ordinances related to homelessness, including reintroduction of one that prohibited sitting or lying on public property.
If the sit/lie law was so effective and necessary, why is it just now resurfacing for the council’s consideration? After all, it expired more than two years ago.
In front of an overflowing City Council chambers, O’Brien replied that the department had been implementing other tactics of which he wanted to judge the efficacy. He offered his opinion—that reinstating the law could be helpful when it comes to quality-of-life issues in commercial districts downtown—because he was asked by the mayor.
The law was one of five discussion items on the agenda under the banner of “Chico Safe Now” proposals. Brought forward by Councilman Andrew Coolidge, the list drew comments from roughly 50 Chicoans, who squeezed as much as they could into a one-minute speaking limit during a meeting that adjourned past midnight after closed session.
Overwhelmingly, speakers were against reinstating the sit/lie law or creating any other regulations that could further criminalize homelessness, whether they were related to shopping carts or changing city park closure times (also among the proposals). Many of them wore T-shirts or emblems with the slogan “housing not handcuffs.”
Coolidge kicked off the conversation by asking speakers to “toss away” prepared speeches and provide solutions to the city’s issues with homelessness and crime. The crowd’s energy was tense from the get-go. After only two speakers, the mayor ordered a recess once loud cheers and clapping erupted, warning against future “outbursts.”
Among the many solutions presented after the meeting progressed were: paving the way for more housing by supporting legal camping and Chico Housing Action Team’s Simplicity Village; forming a committee to examine services and close gaps; and creating a detox center funded by private and public resources.
Multiple speakers suggested legalizing cannabis businesses and using the revenue to help fund affordable housing. Homeless man Richard Muenzer said the city needs a needle exchange program and rehab “something fierce.”
Chico State political science professor Jennifer Wilking suggested the city partner with students to work on researching these issues; she teaches a course that focuses on how research can be used to set policy, and published a study that analyzed the sit/lie ordinance with her colleagues last year. (See “Costs of criminalization,” Newslines, Sept. 7, 2017.)
A few speakers pointed out that the municipal code already has laws on the books to prohibit being drunk or under the influence in public, loitering and camping; yet, they haven’t done anything to curb homelessness. “If you don’t want people to be outdoors, you need to give them a place to be,” said Joey Haney.
Eventually, the council circled back around to approving all of O’Brien’s recommendations, which he offered at the beginning of the conversation. Here’s what happened:
• O’Brien will bring back an analysis of the sit/lie ordinance, along with citation and prosecution information. (Noes: Ory, Councilwoman Ann Schwab and Councilman Randall Stone.)
• Shopping cart discussions will happen at retail watch meetings, a partnership between Chico PD and the Chico Chamber of Commerce.
• What could it mean if Chico declares a shelter crisis? City Attorney Vince Ewing will return with that information.
• The Bidwell Park and Playground Commission will discuss closure times for city parks, as well as requiring permits for the use of Bidwell Bowl Amphitheater.
• Can the city add cameras or other forms of security in certain public spaces? City staff will examine possible locations.
In Mayor Sean Morgan’s perspective, “illegal activity is illegal activity.”
“When we’re talking about sit and lie, I don’t think officers are out there to criminalize homelessness,” he said, adding that he has been supportive of wraparound, nonfragmented services, namely the Jesus Center’s consolidation of services and relocation.
Schwab said the city really needs to “put our money where our mouth is” and make affordable housing a priority. The best way to create social change is to fund the agencies providing services to homeless people, like the city was doing when it had a community grant program, which was redirected to the general fund at the council’s last meeting.
“We just sold a piece of property for $700,000 tonight,” she said. “Can we reinvest that money into our community, into our citizens?”
Coolidge said installing security cameras in places like Depot Park is probably a good idea, citing the usefulness of the cameras installed on the bike path near Chico State. “If someone gets beaten or stabbed, I’d love to catch the person and throw them in jail who did that.”
“I’m not proposing these ordinances to harm people. I’m proposing these ordinances to hear from the people I represent and work for and see what we can do to make things make a little more sense,” he said. “I just got tired of waiting to have this discussion because it seemed my community was going to explode over it.”
Ory noted that no beds were created as a result of the council’s discussion and expressed hope that there would be a serious look taken at housing when the topic comes back around.
“We’re not talking about coddling anyone, we’re talking about creating another 100 shelter beds,” he said. “That’s a first step towards doing the right thing with this issue.”