Views from the plaza

Eating lunch in downtown Chico gets political

Teri DuBose is encouraging community members to eat lunch at Chico’s City Plaza.

Teri DuBose is encouraging community members to eat lunch at Chico’s City Plaza.

Photo by Ken Smith

Over the past several weeks, tensions have escalated alongside rising temperatures, as the city ramps up its efforts to curb vagrancy issues and two groups of citizens—both armed with sandwiches, snacks and strong opinions—have taken to the Chico City Plaza to make their stand.

Since the beginning of June, downtown business owner Teri DuBose has organized regular lunch meetups there every Wednesday at 1 p.m. Though it’s been painted by some local media as an effort to “take back” the plaza from the homeless population, DuBose told the CN&R her intentions aren’t that heavy-handed. But some homeless advocates aren’t so sure. They’ve taken to meeting at the park on Wednesdays as well, as a way to observe the gatherings and ensure homeless individuals also gathered there feel safe and welcome in the public space.

DuBose is a lifelong Chicoan whose family has owned downtown’s Broadway Pawn for the last 47 years. She and her brother assumed control of the business about four years ago, and the experience opened her eyes to the immensity of Chico’s homeless issues, she told the CN&R.

Over the last few years, she grew accustomed to eating at the plaza by herself. She’d often invite people to join her, but said most stayed away, apparently discouraged by the area’s reputation as a crime-ridden haven for the city’s homeless population.

DuBose said she wants to prove to others that the plaza—and downtown as a whole—isn’t as bad as people may paint it to be, but she grew disheartened herself after a particularly rough day in late May. After witnessing a rash of drug activity and bad behavior, she posted to Facebook that she was done touting the park as a lunchtime destination.

The responses to that post encouraged her to continue the effort. On June 1, about half a dozen people joined her, and in the ensuing weeks dozens more have shown up, including Mayor Sean Morgan and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien.

“It’s not about kicking the homeless out,” DuBose said. “It’s really about bringing the community together. I think that homeless people have a right to be here, and I think everyone else does, too.

“I don’t want the crime, though, and I don’t think anybody does,” she continued. “I’ve seen people buy and do drugs right here, I’ve been screamed at for no reason. That’s the kind of stuff I want to see stop, and I think more people coming here and just enjoying the plaza can help deter that kind of behavior.”

DuBose’s perspective is shaped by personal experience. She’s on a first-name basis with plaza regulars ranging from homeless individuals to police officers, and has participated in the Downtown Ambassador program. She’s toured the Torres Community Shelter and Jesus Center to better understand available resources, and served as a mentor through the latter organization’s House of Hope program. She’s also been victimized by crime; the windows of Broadway Pawn, located just south of the plaza, have been broken three times in the past six months, she said.

“The crime and abuse of property needs to stop,” she said, noting she feels increased downtown patrols by the CPD’s Target Team have created changes for the better. “Everyone needs to feel safe.”

Homeless advocate Patrick Newman and his group, Friends on the Street, have doubts about the group’s intentions. “I truly believe that their ‘Kumbaya’ rhetoric is not where they are philosophically,” Newman said last Sunday (July 2), during a break from handing out food and other necessities at City Plaza.

Newman and Friends on the Street began distributing food at the plaza in 2013, to protest the city stopping Orchard Church from performing that service. After a hiatus, they started again in January 2016 to protest the city’s passage of the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property and Sit/Lie ordinances, which criminalize aspects of living on the streets.

The mission extends beyond just giving food, Newman explained: “It’s also about standing beside the homeless and affirming them in a public space. It’s like saying, ‘Here’s a sandwich, but I’m also offering my support for you and your civil rights, and recognizing you have the right to be in this space and that you are part of the community.’ If we don’t do that, it erodes away, which is what I think is happening right now.”

Newman said he fears the Wednesday lunch group is aimed at making homeless people feel unwelcome in the plaza. He also noted city officials recently closed public restrooms there overnight and plan to install additional lighting and cameras in the area by the end of July.

He also said he’s seen an increase in law enforcement contacts in the plaza in recent weeks, a claim affirmed by a number of homeless people in the park that day. Several others said they’ve seen an upsurge in arrests and police harassment for minor offenses, like smoking cigarettes and having unlicensed dogs.

Friends on the Street began lunching at the plaza on Wednesdays on June 21 to observe DuBose’s group. Newman said he was surprised to see the group had brought bottled waters and Otter Pops to share with everyone in the plaza—including homeless people—that week, but that his group remains wary.

“No matter what you do, someone’s likely to be critical,” DuBose said when confronted with these concerns. “But I think we all have some of the same goals in mind; we all want everybody to be safe and enjoy the space. We just have different ways of going about it.”