‘Role model’

The mayor ought to know better than to demonize homeless people

I’ve spent my lunch break on the past couple of Wednesdays at Chico City Plaza, so that I could check out the loosely organized effort among members of the business community to spend a late lunch hour there as a way to encourage people to come downtown.

On my first outing, I plopped myself on a bench nearest to the southeast corner, chomped on the sandwich I’d purchased downtown and watched things from that unobstructed view. It was June 21, during that week of triple-digit temperatures, and the vibe was pretty low-key.

Also in attendance, across the plaza, was Mayor Sean Morgan. He was dressed casually in shorts and a polo shirt, chatting it up with recognizable business folks, one of whom he gave a high-five. I don’t know how long Morgan had been there prior to my arrival, but he departed in the direction of City Hall shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, I saw another local contingent, people I recognized as members of the Chico Peace and Justice Center and other folks concerned with civil liberties. That included a couple of Chico State faculty members and Patrick Newman, a Chico resident who has gone out of his way to help the down and out the past couple of years. He was handing out provisions—refreshments and snacks—to the homeless folks who congregate there and making sure they weren’t getting hassled.

I can certainly understand why Newman would think they’d feel unwelcome.

What prompted his (and my) presence there mid-week was the troubling subtext in a story in the local daily about the lunchtime gatherings. In particular, the article couched the effort as a way to “take back” the plaza. The folks who evidently had possession of it were, as the write-up put it, “vagrants.”

That line of thinking was reinforced by Morgan, who was quoted as saying: “It’s a fantastic idea. If we don’t take back our public spaces, then by definition we acquiesce—we give it to them.” (The “them” being vagrants.)

Thing is, City Plaza is a public space. By definition, that park in the middle of downtown belongs to everyone—even those so-called vagrants. You’d think our mayor would know this. That he openly advocates the “take back” mentality is a real concern. In fact, doing so is ignorant. And dangerous.

Morgan is a role model. Maybe not to me and a lot of other people, but what he says matters.

I’d like to remind him of something he touted in his biography when he first ran for City Council in 2012: that he “spent countless hours teaching Sunday school” at his Chico church. Perhaps he needs a refresher on Matthew 25:34-35 or the other many scriptures related to the poor.

I didn’t see anything disturbing during that first trip, nor during my second one last week, when my husband and I sat near the business contingent. (No sign of the mayor that day.) But I had staff writer Ken Smith look into the situation to get the perspective of both sides. See his report on page 8.

I get that the business community wants to make sure townsfolk feel comfortable coming to the city center, and they have legitimate gripes about illegal behavior going on there (drug use, smoking, dogs off-leash). But creating an us-versus-them narrative, as the mayor did, isn’t going to help the situation—it will only make matters worse.

As a public official, Morgan ought to know better.