Who’s got dibs on Plaza Park?

The recent discussions about revamping the Downtown Plaza Park raise a fundamental and fragile question: What should the city do about those who inhabit the park most days?

When the City Council brought up the matter a few weeks back, Councilmember Steve Bertagna found it difficult to describe the folks who sleep on the grass, sit in the gazebo or lounge on the park benches. He was looking for the correct way to say “undesirable elements,” describing those who may or may not tarnish the downtown’s image and frighten off the more-refined park visitors.

What we’re talking about is a mixture of for the most part harmless homeless folks and the few aggressive creeps who use the park to ply their unwholesome trades.

Downtown merchants, through the Downtown Chico Business Association, have expressed their concerns to the Chico Police Department, citing a lack of officer-presence as part of the reason for the daily gatherings of the down-and-out in the downtown park. Police Chief Bruce Hagerty has told the DCBA that some officers are reluctant to take on downtown beats, though he’s not sure why.

Hagerty told the DCBA that the homeless are being bused from the Torres Community Shelter to the Jesus Center. After the Jesus Center serves its meals, clients are chased out of the four-block neighborhood surrounding the center, as required by the center’s special-use permit. Many of the center’s regulars, the chief said, head downtown to spend the rest of the day in the park until the shelter allows them to come back. The DCBA’s Katrina Davis said she has had discussions with the shelter operators about possible daytime programs for its clients, programs that have yet to be implemented.

There are two issues at work here. One is cleaning up the park for aesthetic reasons—i.e., getting rid of the homeless. The other is clearing the park of the criminal element.

It is not necessarily the homeless who are causing the problems. There is no law against loitering in the park—at least not yet. As long as park users are not violating a law or city ordinance, they have a right to be in the park.

It is the drug dealers and those who trash and defecate in the park who are causing the problems. And it is for these people that a greater police presence in needed, not the homeless looking simply to while away their time.