Under pressure

Weekly gathering supports homeless folks’ right to public space

Chico Friends on the Streets founder Patrick Newman (center) says “it’s unconstitutional” to enact a law prohibiting food giveaways.

Chico Friends on the Streets founder Patrick Newman (center) says “it’s unconstitutional” to enact a law prohibiting food giveaways.

Photo by Robert Speer

They began arriving as early as 11 a.m., even though they knew the food wouldn’t get there for another hour. By the time Patrick Newman backed his pickup loaded with dozens of brown-bag lunches into one of the parking spaces on Main Street at the southeast corner of the City Plaza, their numbers had swelled to 60 or more.

It was a convivial crowd on Sunday (March 25), with lots of shout-outs and hugs being given. Most of the people were homeless, but there were several housed folks in the group—Chico State professors, several activists and former City Councilwoman Mary Flynn among them.

They are members of Chico Friends on the Street, a group Newman founded in January 2016 to provide free lunches every Sunday.

They quickly unloaded the food—which included burritos wrapped in foil and packaged trail mix, among other items—and the homeless people began distributing it among themselves.

Recently CFOTS and its lunches have come under attack by people who want the City Council to pass an ordinance banning the food giveaway. A group has formed—called Chico First and claiming more than 1,600 members—to work collectively toward a cleaner Chico by doing neighborhood cleanups. The group has targeted CFOTS’ lunches and put pressure on the council to ban such food distribution.

Several Chico First members, led by Rob Berry—who on his Facebook page is described as a “semi-retired attorney and business adviser living in Chico”—appeared before the council at its March 20 meeting to argue for an ordinance.

The giveaways are “a misuse and abuse of our public spaces,” Berry charged.

Another member, Josh Pitts, an ambassador of the downtown property-based improvement district, said the giveaways contribute to a lessening of the community’s quality of life and safety. They leave messes behind, the food is “uninspected” and isn’t necessarily healthful to eat, and graffiti, trash and vandalism increase following the gathering.

Wayne Cook, the owner of Hotel Diamond as well as many other properties, was similarly hostile toward CFOTS’ giveaways. They’re poisoning the downtown, he told the council. “It’s hard enough to be a business person without taking the heart of your city and turning it over to problematic people,” he said.

Newman has a blunt response to any ordinance banning public feeding: “It’s unconstitutional.” Homeless people have a right to use public spaces to meet their survival needs, especially when nothing else does, he says.

He is among those who see homelessness as a symptom of the social dislocation that has resulted in large measure from the inequality in wealth in America that was exacerbated by the Great Recession. With housing costs at historic highs, even people with good jobs have trouble paying for shelter.

Newman and many others believe the necessary first step toward ending homelessness is the obvious one: find or build housing for the homeless. Once they have roofs over their heads, they can deal with the personal problems—alcoholism, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, debilitating poverty—that put them on the streets in the first place.

Where “housing first” has been implemented—Utah, for example—it has been successful.

Many cities, however, are going the route the Chico City Council has taken: criminalizing the behavior of the homeless in order to force them out of downtown and, even better, out of town.

Lisa Brockus knows from personal experience that criminalization doesn’t work. Interviewed at Sunday’s lunch, she recounted something that recently happened to her and several other homeless people.

Needing to get out of the rain one night, they camped out on the portico of the downtown post office. Sometime around 2 or 3 a.m., Chico police awakened them. Brockus was charged with illegally sleeping in a public place, handcuffed and taken to the Butte County Jail. She was released on her own recognizance later that day, and eventually the charges were dropped.

She’s back on the streets. She won’t go to the Torres Community Shelter, she says, because “I don’t want bedbugs.”

Chico Mayor Sean Morgan is of the school of thought that says helping the homeless only makes them less able to help themselves. In a recent interview aired on Action News Now, he said CFOTS is made up of “well-intentioned people … who are only making the problem worse. … They’re hurting these people by empowering them.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said that laws against homelessness have such resonance in the United States because of the puritanical work ethic woven into its social fabric.

“This is the assumption: that people are homeless because they aren’t trying hard enough,” he said. “There’s the sense that something must be wrong with them, rather than something is wrong with society.”

For his part, Newman is supportive of the many services in Chico that help homeless people. And he’s under no illusions that his once-a-week outreach is going to make Chico’s homeless population significantly healthier and happier. But every bit helps, he says, which is why during winter months he passes out blankets and tarps, in addition to food.

An important part of his effort, however, is its emphasis on bringing sheltered and unsheltered people together, to “bridge the gap” between them.

Angela McLaughlin, a member of CFOTS, expressed it vividly in her North State Voices column in the March 8 issue of the Chico E-R:

“Our conversations need to include … those who are struggling with addiction, who are dirty and unkempt, who were just released from prison, who made dumb mistakes. If we don’t find a way to incorporate their perspectives, we will not only all be more impoverished for it, but real, lasting solutions will continue to elude us.”