CHICO — After seven months of uncertainty handling years of increasing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chico staff and the City Council reached steps toward agreement Tuesday night.
City Manager Mark Orme presented a revised approach for the city’s Homeless Opportunities Plan, what he called the Quality of Life plan, to address not just homelessness but general impacts on living in the city. Within this strategy, staff proposed using nearly $2 million for addressing homelessness.
The biggest change Orme suggested was to make an emergency order to use a property west of the Chico Airport as a three-month emergency campground where homeless individuals could move to, if they cannot or will not enter Torres Shelter. The project would cost about $700,000, he said.
This part of his proposal met confusion and uncertainty from the council and most of the public present, although it was supported by Mayor Ann Schwab. Orme said he had expected pushback and added while staff do not have “full faith or confidence” in the plan, it was what they had been able to pull together for consideration based on many conversations about homelessness.
Due to the “failures” of multiple systems in place to help people, local government is now expected to handle these issues with limited resources, he added. The immediate concerns for staff continue to be to get 50 additional beds in the Torres Shelter and provide a temporary campground until Jan. 31.
He and Schwab agreed that “we have been struggling to find the perfect plan,” with little results from the county and state, currently “inundated with one disaster after another.”
“It’s not out there — this is going to be a work in progress,” Schwab said. She cited the Ninth Circuit of Appeals ruling prohibiting prosecution of people sleeping in public, and the city must have accommodations for people to go if they are moved from a location like Bidwell Park — she was later told the Chico Police Department’s Target Team estimates 45 to 50 people camp in Bidwell Park.
The other councilors were skeptical of the location, or the idea of the campground itself, and the conversation largely focused on the balance between enforcement of city codes and feasible locations for people to shelter. Little time was spent on how the plan could connect more mental health resources to the unsheltered.
Notably, staff framed the plan on general quality of life in the city, and around what was called “pervasive” illegal activity and crime. Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin said the city must also focus on being able to strategically plan for emergencies and has not had the fiscal resources to do so or address general public safety.
Constantin clarified that if people are asked to leave Bidwell Park while camping, they will be cited for a camping ordinance violation if they refuse to go to either a temporary campground or a shelter.
“I don’t think the strategy is to enforce anti-camping citywide and force anyone anywhere, it’s to to give another place to go for camping opportunities.”
The online survey that recently asked for community input found that of over 1,000 comments, the ideas of keeping safe and clean parks and waterways, increasing shelter beds and enforcement of illegal activities in public areas were the top three priorities. Homeless Solutions Coordinator Suzi Kochems added many do not seem to believe the homeless population will cooperate with staff solutions.
The results also showed concern about where homeless individuals can go and a current lack of affordable housing. Kochems said in her experience any emergency shelter plan also needs an affordable housing component to transition people into permanent housing.
The location of the proposed emergency shelter was not liked by Councilors Scott Huber, Randall Stone or Vice Mayor Alex Brown. Transportation would be an issue as well as a campground that seems “inhospitable,” Huber said. Constantin retorted that the city lacks other locations and to allow anyone to continue to live outside at all could be considered inhospitable.
Councilor Sean Morgan was particularly vocal, calling the survey which had to be used to gather public input “unnecessary” and saying he could not support using $700,000 for a three-month project. He met dispute from Schwab, who asked “What else can we do?” and tried to ask him what dollar amount he would support using for such a campground. Morgan then asked staff to continue drafting strategies in the Quality of Life plan.
While some public commenters like Jack Lee expressed confusion about why California has such a high rate of homelessness — “What is the magnet?” — others connected the problem to a “war on homelessness” approach rather than focusing on housing.
Charles Withuhn chastised staff for using criteria he said predates emergencies like the Camp Fire to find a location for addressing the emergency of homelessness declared years ago.
Rhonda Magnusson said she has been homeless for years and the people she knows will not go to such a remote location — “You cannot get them out there. They will not be brutalized; they will not be abused.”
“I don’t think most of you spend any time with the people in the public space, with those who actually live there,” Patrick Newman said.
Larry Holstead agreed, asking if staff had asked anyone homeless why they camp or do not stay at the Torres Shelter and Chico Housing Action Team volunteer Nancy Park said she has “wept” for the state of Bidwell Park, and a solution is needed help people find housing or shelter somewhere besides the parks, so the city’s greenways can be restored.
“They have to be treated like human beings and provided for in ways that are humane,” Emily Alma said.
While the council directed staff to find another location for a campground and to assess the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds BMX location (using $100,000), the following funding was approved unanimously:
- Expand existing emergency shelter beds at Torres Shelter by 50 ($300,000)
- 160 short term shelter beds ($282,933)
- Conduct fire risk assessment ($100,000)
- Municipal code enforcement ($60,000)
- A dedicated parks and waterways clean up ($300,000)
- Invite partner organizations to work with the Police Department’s Target Team ($20,000)
The total approved for use by the city comes to $1,062,933.
As the county has moved into Orange Tier during the COVID-19 pandemic, True North Housing Alliance’s Joy Amaro said modifying health restrictions at Torres Shelter can be worked on with Butte County Public Health, though she has concerns for protecting all guests and staff from the virus.
Additionally, Amaro said over $5 million could come to the county via the Continuum of Care to house people during the pandemic which would open two more permanent solutions, she said.
In the meantime, True North is also still managing Project Roomkey with about 100 still waiting for housing. It has served over 300 and housed about 90 but is currently capped due to no available hotel rooms in the county.