More affordable housing, services, opportunities, understanding and action paired with fewer negative interactions with law enforcement were pitched as answers to homelessness in Chico last night as about 70 people turned up at Cafe Coda for a panel discussion hosted by the local theater group, Slow Theatre.
The panel, made up of a county housing official, three homeless advocates and a homeless man who prefers the term house-less described the hardships of life on the street and urged more compassion generally.
“All of the reasons that people are homeless are unique stories, I mean the common denominator is that there is very little affordable housing, so people cannot afford a place to live,” said Siana Sonoquie of the North Valley Housing Trust. “Overall the same issues that people who are housed have, the same populations, the same things are going on, they are just exacerbated because people are living in 24-hour toxic stress,” she said.
Attendees seemed receptive and sympathetic, bookmarking points with cheers and applause. The general attitude seemed to contrast from the community as a whole. In recent years, Chico’s City Council has strengthened regulations on loitering, vagrancy and camping, while locals posting on social media blame carelessly discarded syringes, random confrontations and filthy encampments on the homeless.
Sonoquie, and fellow panelist Sam Keller, who said he lacks housing, said minor infractions can snowball into a criminal record for the downtrodden making it that much more difficult to land employment or housing.
Charles Withuhn, an advocate with the Chico Housing Action Team, pitched so-called tiny homes — essentially unheated backyard tool sheds as an inexpensive first step to getting people off the streets.
Edward Mayer, executive director of the Housing Authority of Butte County, said the barriers to affordable housing construction are very difficult to overcome. He said there is virtually no housing that would be considered affordable to those surviving on Supplemental Security Income — Social Security benefits for those judged unable to work due to age or disability.
Echoing the arguments made by for-profit developers, Mayer rattled off a list of impediments, including: impact fees, battling environmental lawsuits, and a state-local tax system that essentially rewards cities for creating sales tax generating businesses and penalizes them for housing construction.
“A single unit that would cost us to construct about $125,000 ends up costing us about $350,000 to produce because of all these extra fees and regulatory burdens, so we have created a system where it is very difficult to produce the housing that we need in this community,” Mayer said.
A separate, unrelated panel on the state of homelessness in Chico is scheduled at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, in ARTS 111 at Chico State. According to a press release from Chico State, the discussion is sponsored by the California Faculty Association. Topics will include how homelessness affects students and how homelessness should be addressed.