Under one roof

City Council tentatively supports moving Jesus Center, centralizing homeless services

The Jesus Center, which Executive Director Laura Cootsona says is on pace to serve 100,000 meals in 2017, may move to a new location in south Chico.

The Jesus Center, which Executive Director Laura Cootsona says is on pace to serve 100,000 meals in 2017, may move to a new location in south Chico.

Photo by Kevin Fuller

The city is looking at consolidating homeless service providers into a sort of one-stop shop in south Chico, but it became apparent during the Chico City Council’s meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 7) that a major service provider—Torres Community Shelter—has been left somewhat out of the loop.

In fact, Joy Amaro, who was named executive director of the Shelter in August, asked the council to table the matter for further review. “It is not our intent to be obstructionist and lose momentum,” she said, “but rather it’s our belief that all stakeholders should be brought together to coordinate the resources to ensure community-wide results.”

Councilman Karl Ory seemed taken aback by her request. “You’re asking for a delay of how long?” he asked.

“I would recommend that we just bring this back continuously with updates,” Amaro responded.

“I’m still unclear, and you’re a very important partner in this,” Ory said. “The proposal is for continued discussion—really, we’re making very few hard decisions here, unless you’re totally opposed.”

Amaro clarified that the shelter’s board of directors is not opposed, prompting Councilman Randall Stone to jump in: “My concern is that you haven’t been involved with any of these discussions.”

She paused and said, “Yes and no.”

The vision laid out by City Manager Mark Orme is to relocate the Jesus Center to a city-owned, 3.92-acre parcel currently occupied by the Silver Dollar BMX track adjacent to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. The center, a faith-based organization that feeds, clothes and offers other services to homeless people on Park Avenue, is on board with that plan. The move would place the organization in close proximity to the Torres Shelter and Valley View Apartments, a 14-unit permanent housing complex for people who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or living with mental illness.

Ideally, the arrangement would provide a single entry point and hub for homeless people seeking services. Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center, outlined plans for a day center, a clinic offering medical, dental and mental health care, 100 low-barrier beds and 10 to 15 rooms for families. Other service providers could potentially relocate to the area to centralize services, including Simplicity Village, a concept led by the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) aimed at creating a tiny house community.

Orme acknowledged that finding a suitable place for the bike track to relocate is one of the plan’s major logistical hurdles, but assured the group that it won’t be left without a space. Vince Enserro, vice president of Silver Dollar BMX, said he was satisfied that the city wouldn’t move forward with the plan unless his organization signed off on a new location.

“We’re on board to be relocated, if that’s what needs to happen,” he said.

Cootsona said her organization has been looking for a new location for the past 18 months because its current home, adjacent to a residential neighborhood, isn’t ideal and its aging building isn’t ADA-compliant.

“We’re fighting that building every single day,” she said.

Cootsona explained that, more generally, local service providers are struggling to meet the needs of the fastest-growing demographic within the homeless population—families. They’re also falling short when it comes to offering low-barrier, come-as-you-are entry.

“We have very little ability to stabilize and help the most vulnerable people,” he said.

The community came out in force to discuss the proposal, packing the council chambers to capacity. About 40 speakers weighed in when the floor opened for public comment, most of whom favored moving the Jesus Center.

But several speakers were critical because the plan does not address a root cause of homelessness—Chico’s affordable housing shortage. And local homeless advocate Patrick Newman suggested that moving the Jesus Center farther from downtown would serve only to sweep homelessness out of sight.

“This is a way to concentrate people,” he said, “not to embrace them, bring them into the heart of the community, sit with them and learn their life stories.”

Councilwoman Ann Schwab made a motion to accept Orme’s recommendations, which include approving the general concept; developing a memorandum of understanding and eventually a lease agreement with the Jesus Center; authorizing a one-year notice of intent to terminate the current lease on the site and help relocate Silver Dollar BMX; and directing Orme to work with neighbors—California Water Service Co., Torres Shelter and Valley View Apartments—to improve road access to the site.

At Ory’s request, Schwab added an amendment to direct city staff to work with CHAT to explore the Simplicity Village concept as well.

The council voted unanimously to support Schwab’s motion.

However, a few members expressed frustration with the Torres Shelter. Councilman Mark Sorensen called Amaro’s request for further review “analysis paralysis,” while Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer said she was “really disappointed.”

“After all the support the community has offered the shelter,” she said, “and all the support we’ve provided at the council level, they’re not supporting this concept.”

Amaro told the CN&R that she supports consolidating services, but she hasn’t been approached by the city regarding specific details: “We don’t really know what our role would be in it.”

“We just want a deeper level of conversation,” she added, “and we were asking for it to be tabled for that reason—not because we don’t want the project to happen.”