Tent city

Local group looks to develop campground for homeless

Leslie Johnson, local attorney and member of the Chico Housing Action Team, which is looking into creating a campground for the homeless.

Leslie Johnson, local attorney and member of the Chico Housing Action Team, which is looking into creating a campground for the homeless.

photo courtesy of leslie johnson

Discussion about providing the homeless a campground is not a new thing around these parts. The idea goes back at least 15 years and was talked about at Chico City Council meetings and inevitably shot down on the grounds that “If you build it they will come,” meaning a facility would only attract more homeless to the community.

This was before the Torres Community Shelter was built. Back then, shelter for the homeless was provided on a rotating basis by a number of local churches. Today, the Torres Shelter does not house the entire homeless population—some choose not to go there because they have animal companions, others because they can’t abide by the shelter’s rules.

At the Feb. 25 meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Services, the campground/tent city idea was floated again by members of the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), who said that while it’s not a solution to the homelessness problem, it is a starting place.

CHAT member and local attorney Leslie Johnson told the task force that resource-generating ideas were being discussed, such as crowdfunding, an Internet-based money raiser recently used by the Pageant Theatre, downtown’s The Bookstore and KZFR community radio to help keep their operations afloat.

“We’d like to put out a request for a piece of land,” she said. “It’s got to be in the right place—not too far out of town, not too close in, and not in the neighborhoods.”

She said CHAT, which formed last November, would like to start with a number of smaller camps.

“We’re treating this as a symptom, as a way to start,” she said. “It’s an opening to bring people out of dirty, unsafe camps to a place with toilets and maybe a place to meet.”

Opponents of homeless camps in the past have included the local business community, by way of the Greater Chico Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Chico Business Association (DCBA). Katie Simmons, the chamber’s president and CEO, said it was too early in the current discussion for the chamber to weigh in and that it was surveying members to find out where they stand on the matter.

“We’d rather not comment until we have the information we need,” Simmons said.

Task force member and former Chico Chamber CEO Jolene Francis, who is now with the Enloe Foundation and a group known as the North Valley Housing Trust Team, warned that “my opinion is that the business community would not be in favor [of a camp.]”

Melanie Bassett, executive director of the DCBA, said in an email response to a request for comment that the organization does not have an official position on a homeless camp.

“There are many unknowns at this time,” she wrote. “We are participants on the Mayor’s Task Force, the Clean & Safe Committee, the Greater Homeless Task Force and also were a part of the 10-year Continuum of Care set of workshops. We realize there are no easy solutions and we want to be a part of a solution that meets everyone’s needs.”

For her part, Johnson, in a post-meeting interview, said every community has an obligation to address the problem of homelessness.

“We hope that our plan will be successful, and other communities will follow suit and will take responsibility for those without any resources in their own cities and towns,” she said.

CHAT will continue looking for a suitable piece of property.

“We are hoping for a place that is at least an acre or two, and has access to water and sewer and electricity, and is on a bus line,” Johnson said. “However, we will have an adjustable plan in the works that will enable us to be flexible. In the meantime, we are continuing to talk with everyone we can think of in our community, developing the support and guidance we will need in undertaking this project.”

She said CHAT members are also planning to visit existing camps in California, Oregon and Washington “to continue learning more about what works best.”