Tackling transiency

Diverse group presents comprehensive, eclectic approach

Lt. Jennifer Gonzales, a member of Clean and Safe Chico, offers the Chico Police Department’s perspective on the problems posed by homeless transients.

Lt. Jennifer Gonzales, a member of Clean and Safe Chico, offers the Chico Police Department’s perspective on the problems posed by homeless transients.

Photo By robert speer

“Wow!” That was Councilman Sean Morgan’s response after the City Council heard a presentation from Clean and Safe Chico, the action group of diverse organizations tackling the problems created by homeless transients, especially in the downtown area.

It was the highlight of a jam-packed and long—it ended at 11:10 p.m.—council meeting Tuesday (March 5). Most striking was the diverse makeup of the group, which includes business owners, Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Chico Business Association reps, local pastors, the heads of the Torres Community Shelter and the Jesus Center, someone from the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force and the Chico Police Department, and more.

One by one they stepped to the podium to address the issue from their perspectives. Despite their obvious differences, they agreed that, because of the many homeless transients now flowing through Chico, large numbers of residents no longer saw downtown, and other areas in the city, as being “clean and safe,” and that this perception and its cause were a danger to Chico’s continued economic and social vitality.

The business folks spoke to the problems created by transients—trash, sleeping in doorways, vomit, aggressive panhandling, scary dogs—and the fact customers are staying away from their stores so as not to have to deal with them.

The social-welfare types spoke to the need to help people, the business owners as well as the homeless. “Our mission is the love of strangers,” declared Bill Such, director of the Jesus Center. “We will not demonize panhandlers or business people.”

Action steps were broached. Brad Montgomery, head of the Torres Shelter, talked about a program called Redirecting Generosity that encourages residents not to give money to panhandlers, but rather to direct them to available services. Panhandling, he said, was “an instant-gratification lifestyle that too often leads to an early grave.”

The group is taking a comprehensive approach. Other programs include developing a civil-streets ordinance to control loitering and overnight camping, a “street pastors” program to connect with homeless transients, a “walkable downtown” plan and increased police presence downtown.

Of the street pastors program, Andrew Burchett, of the Neighborhood Church, explained that it had been used in Britain, but Chico will be the first city in the United States to implement it. Local pastors will be on the streets from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends to minister to the homeless, he said.

Mayor Mary Goloff was so impressed by Clean and Safe Chico’s presentation that she decided on the spot to move the agenda items scheduled for the council’s March 26 meeting to April 2, to be replaced by a workshop that would “dig deeper” into the issues raised by the group. The rest of the council agreed with her notion.

In other council news: The council approved a salary schedule for the city’s five new department-head positions and assistant city manager—$160,000 annually for the former, $185,000 for the latter, all more than the current positions pay.

City Manager Brian Nakamura justified the higher salaries by pointing to increased responsibilities, but Councilwoman Ann Schwab questioned that in the cases of the police and fire chiefs, whose jobs haven’t changed any. Nakamura’s response was that he “didn’t feel they’d been correctly compensated at the outset,” that their jobs entailed increased risk, and that Chico’s quality of life led to higher housing costs. “These salaries are commensurate with what Chico has to offer and what Chico expects,” he said.

Conservative council gadfly John Salyer chided Nakamura, saying the figures were “kinda shocking” and that once again government was paying “double or triple the going private-sector rate.”

The council approved the salaries, 6-1, with Schwab voting nay.

The council also made a required determination of public convenience and necessity for the BevMo! liquor supermarket, part of a chain, set to go into the Target shopping center on East 20th Street. The determination was a legal requirement for license approval because the census tract in which the store would be located had been determined to be overstocked with booze purveyors.

Schwab was opposed, saying the time was wrong because of the recent deaths from alcohol overdoses and the community’s effort to combat drug and alcohol abuse. But other council members cited BevMo!’s reputation as a responsible retailer and its location away from the university campus. The determination passed, 6-1, with Schwab dissenting.

Finally, the council voted 5-2, with Morgan and Councilman Mark Sorensen dissenting, to expand its proposed ban of single-use plastic bags to include convenience stores and to make it effect Jan. 1, 2014. The California Grocers Association requested the expansion, saying it would level the playing field in a highly competitive market.