Remembering the dead

Downtown gathering pays tribute to the local down and out

Bobbiesue Loehr shares her experiences on the street with an audience at City Plaza on Tuesday (May 5), which was Global Homeless Day.

Bobbiesue Loehr shares her experiences on the street with an audience at City Plaza on Tuesday (May 5), which was Global Homeless Day.

PHOTO by Tom Gascoyne

Community members gathered at Chico City Plaza on Tuesday (May 5) to pay tribute to the scores of people who have died over the past seven years for reasons connected to homelessness.

The event took place on Global Homeless Day and was organized by the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), which has been working over the past year and a half to provide shelter to those turned away from the Torres Community Shelter in south Chico due to drunkenness, poor behavior, animal companions or drug use.

The gathering was host to a number of speakers, including attorney Andy Holcombe, a former Chico mayor who has long worked to help the poor and advocated for low-income housing. He said he originally got into politics—he served on the City Council from 2004-2012—because he didn’t believe enough was being done to curb homelessness.

“Sadly, I still don’t think the community is doing enough to help the homeless,” he told the audience. “I would hope the need for the community to take care of the homeless would not really be subject to debate.”

He acknowledged, however, that some work has been done over the years to help the down and out, including the building of the Torres Community Shelter.

Local activist and CHAT member Bob Trausch spoke of that organization’s mission and the reason they were holding the event.

“We started CHAT 18 months ago with the idea of ultimately building community [shelters] that had less restrictions on who can move into them,” he said.

CHAT helped launch Safe Space, an emergency winter shelter program. The idea came during a cold spell in the winter of 2013, when homeless individuals were allowed to stay at the Chico Peace and Justice Center until the weather warmed. This past winter, a number of churches signed on to the program.

First touching on the killing of Cass Edison, whose body was found in March, Trausch spoke of how many in the homeless community die from natural causes, such as exposure to extreme cold or heat and sickness from lack of medical attention. Records kept by the Jesus Center, he said, show that 40 people have died on the streets of Chico since 2008.

“That is an amazing number to us,” he said. “Forty people have passed for various reasons because they don’t have the safe space or shelter; they don’t have the follow-up services.”

Holcombe said it was important to make sure that those who’ve died didn’t do so in vain.

“I want to remember the people who are alive as well and not let them die,” he said. “It’s really unacceptable to me that our government policy right now is that people can’t sit in the streets, and they can’t lie in the streets, but they can die on the streets. Apparently that is still OK.”

Bobbiesue Loehr, a former homeless person and recovering alcoholic and drug addict who moved to Chico three years ago, shared her story and helped put a face on the local homeless issue.

“I have not used drugs for 37 years and I have not drank for 17 years,” she began to a boisterous round of applause.

Despite her sobriety, life’s been difficult. She lost many things at one time, she said, including her daughter to cancer, her husband, who left her, and her home, which went into foreclosure.

She stayed six months at the Torres Shelter and three months at the Jesus Center’s House of Hope. She said some of her good friends have died along the way.

“All of us had to deal with pneumonia,” she said. “I had pneumonia four times in the six months that I was at the shelter.”

Loehr now works with the Jesus Center’s Cleanup Brigade and can be seen on early mornings in downtown Chico, sweeping the streets and greeting passersby with a hearty “Good morning.”

Those on the streets need to pick a goal, she said, and appreciate that there are opportunities for homeless people if they seek them out.

“It’s not easy being on the streets,” she said, “and I know from standing on the other side of the fence and trying to help people who are on the streets, that it is not an easy job, either. I would just like for us to realize we are a community, whether we are homeless or whether we are living in a house or a van or a camper. We are one and we have to care about each other.”