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How one Chico non-profit stepped up to help unhoused residents during this year’s winter storms

Collapsed tents and pools of water litter a city sanctioned camp on Eaton and Cohasset roads.
Alec Stutson
Collapsed tents and pools of water litter a city sanctioned camp on Eaton and Cohasset roads.

Unhoused residents in Chico were pummeled by the slate of winter storms that began the day after Christmas. At the city's sanctioned sites for unhoused residents to camp, many were unable to escape the wind and rain that knocked down their tents. The city designated these campsites early last year with the intent of providing a sanctioned camping option for unhoused residents who were deemed ineligible to stay at other shelters.

Some members of the local nonprofit North State Shelter Team donated wooden pallets to help those staying at the camps get off the wet ground, and reinforce their tents and structures. NSPR's Alec Stutson spoke with North State Shelter Team board member Charles Withuhn about the needs of those staying at the camps.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On how the North State Shelter Team came up with the idea of dropping off pallets

It just seemed odd to us to have a city-sanctioned campground with people sleeping in mud puddles … we got pallets, they're four-by-four pallets but can be put together to make improvised decks to get people out of the water. I don't think people appreciate that if you get wet and you're living outside and it's 40 degrees or less, in three hours, you can be looking at a fatal version of hypothermia.

We had 20 people die outside … last fall and winter. It was unprecedented. I have worked in Chico 50 years and it never, ever happened before like that. So some friends of mine and I got together, we went around to the back of a big box store, we loaded up our trailer full of pallets and we took it out to Eaton and Cohasset and the campers were thrilled.

NSPR could not confirm the number of deaths of unhoused residents in the last two years cited by the North State Shelter Team. The Butte County Coroner's Office, Department of Public Health, and Chico Police Department all said they do not track or record the number of unhoused deaths in the county or city.

On the other needs of unhoused residents camping at city-sanctioned campgrounds

Tent stakes, tie-down line, decking material, shelter, wind protection, protection from the rain, better tents. We could have the military-style tents that are way more heavy duty than a little lightweight backpack kind of tents that people are trying to make work out there that just get torn to shreds. We need a warming tent, a cooling tent, then it would be something that the city could hang their hat on. What is going on out there now, to my mind, is cruel and unusual punishment for the crime of being poor or burned out.

NSPR asked the city if it had any plans or programs in place to support those staying at the campsites. The Public Works and City Manager's Offices did not return that request for comment.

On what the campgrounds looked like after the storms

Many of the tents are smashed, many of the tents are abandoned. They're just piling tarps on top of tarps. And you know, the water is flowing through. It's a crying shame and I'm embarrassed for our community that we can't do better for the least and the poorest among us.

Alec Stutson grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Radio Journalism, 20th/21st Century Literature, and a minor in Film Studies. He is a huge podcast junkie, as well as a movie nerd and musician.