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Chico City Council Rejects Sanctioned Campground Concept For Unsheltered People

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Climates To Travel
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Chico, CA

Five of seven Chico City Council members this week signaled they were uninterested in exploring the viability of a sanctioned campground for unsheltered people on city-owned land in south Chico. The council also voted to rescind its declaration of a shelter crisis – originally adopted by resolution in 2018 – in a 5-2 vote, with members Alex Brown and Scott Huber against.

An influential attorney who supports the city’s ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments recently spoke with NSPR, saying Chico’s residents shouldn’t carry the burden of solving the problem of homelessness.

040821_HOMELESS_FEATURE.mp3

Read the transcript

KEN DEVOL, HOST:

The Chico City Council put an end this week to discussions surrounding sanctioned campgrounds for unsheltered people. This, as the authorities continue their sweeps of homeless encampments set up in parks and along waterways.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUNCIL MEMBER KAMI DENLAY) “There’s actually not even a shelter crisis anymore based on there being way more than enough shelter beds regularly.”

That was councilor Kami Denlay speaking at the council meeting Tuesday. A majority of the council also voted to rescind the city’s declaration of a shelter crisis, leaving some funding for homeless programs in question.

NSPR’s Andre Byik has more on how the city got here.

ANDRE BYIK, REPORTER:

If there’s politically charged controversy in Chico, one might find semi-retired attorney Rob Berry in the thick of it.

In 2019, Berry mounted a successful lawsuit against the city, blocking a planned tiny home village for homeless seniors. And last year, Berry secured a legal settlement that put an end to a syringe exchange program that had been derided by detractors as a needle giveaway for drug users.

He’s also cultivated a following. Over the last four years, his Facebook group Chico First, whose stated goal is pursuing public safety initiatives through coalition building and citizen action has amassed nearly 5,000 members.

Berry says in that time, he’s conducted his work with the makeup of the City Council in mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB BERRY) “The object has always been that in order to accomplish the things that I understand almost everybody here wants to accomplish – a safe, clean and beautiful community; who doesn’t agree with that? – we need to have policies that reflect those values.”

Change came last November, when voters elected council candidates who were buoyed by political groups that took aim at homeless encampments that had grown in size during the coronavirus pandemic.

The newly elected board then got to work. In December, it made camping in city parks punishable up to a misdemeanor. And in January, it banned needle exchanges within city limits.

The city began its homeless sweeps shortly thereafter, prompting criticism from homeless advocates who say police are forcing unsheltered people out of public spaces without providing viable alternatives. They also say many open shelter beds are in congregate settings, which are not always suitable.

Berry says that criticism diminishes the families and other parkgoers who found tent encampments unacceptable and took their concerns over the direction of the community to the ballot box.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY) “If you’ve ever received a speeding ticket, did the policeman explain to you where you were allowed to speed before he gave you a ticket? It’s not up to the Police Department, and it’s not up to the citizens of Chico to define where people that don’t have the means to pay for housing or are not employable or are deep into an addiction or suffer from mental illness, it’s not up to the everyday citizen to solve that problem for society.”

For Larry Halstead, an unhoused Camp Fire survivor, there didn’t seem to be an alternative to sleeping in public.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY HALSTEAD) “You’re talking about eviction from homes, and these tents are more your home because of your survival situation than when you’re just really just living in a house.”

Halstead is an activist and journalist who was cited for camping along Little Chico Creek during a sweep in February.

He says Berry and members of the council are waging a, quote, “war on homelessness.”

(SOUNDBITE OF HALSTEAD) “It’s the most extreme cruelty, and they intend it to be. They want it to be that. They’re not pretending that it isn’t that. Their stated goal is to make it as miserable and horrible to drive all of the homeless out of Chico and preferably out of Butte County. Period.”

Data collected in 2019 show nearly 900 people were unsheltered in Butte County.

The largest encampment in Chico is currently at the Comanche Creek Greenway at the extreme south edge of town. Campers were given notice this week to pack up and leave.

For NSPR News, I’m Andre Byik.