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Lawyers: Chico Airport Shelter Poses Heat Exposure Risks For Unhoused People

Photo courtesy of Addison Winslow.
Lawyers say the city of Chico’s newly established outdoor homeless shelter at the Chico airport will place unhoused people in danger of heat exposure.

The city of Chico’s newly established homeless shelter at the Chico airport is being criticized in court.

Lawyers for Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) argue the outdoor campground places unhoused people at risk for serious heat-related illness.

In court documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, plaintiffs’ attorney Sarah Steinheimer notes the ground temperature at the airport shelter site reached a high of 151 degrees on Saturday.

Steinheimer says the asphalt and gravel site – with no trees and only a single tent structure for shade – will place unhoused people in danger of heat exposure through the summer.

LSNC represents a group of unhoused people suing over the city’s enforcement of local anti-camping laws, alleging constitutional violations. The firm says the city’s sanctioned campground is inadequate in bringing the city into compliance with Martin v. City of Boise.

“Rather, it ignores the Martin holding ‘as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.’” Steinheimer writes. “Not only does the airport site not offer any indoor sleeping options, but Chico’s high summer temperatures make this exposed, asphalt site unsafe for unhoused persons and therefore not ‘practically available’ to anyone.”

LSNC says unhoused people are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness because of their socioeconomic status and limited access to health care. The firm adds that heat exposure also poses dangers for people suffering from mental illness.

“People need access to indoor air conditioning to stay safe from heat-related illness during high heat events,” Steinheimer writes. “If indoor air conditioning is not available, people need access to well-ventilated shade from trees and greenspaces from parks.”

The city’s lawyers have argued in court filings that the airport site – coupled with the availability of beds at indoor homeless shelters – satisfies requirements to lift a temporary restraining order that has barred the city from enforcing its camping ordinances.

Eric Salbert, an attorney for the city of Chico, wrote the airport shelter “is, in the words of Martin v. City of Boise … ‘practically available’ to the City’s homeless population. Thus, the City respectfully requests that the operative temporary restraining order expire on July 2, 2021, so that it may enforce its anticamping ordinances for the purpose of protecting public health and safety in the City’s parks, watercourses and greenways.”

The city is also asking a federal judge to reject the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, which, if granted, could keep enforcement restrictions on the Chico Police Department in place while the lawsuit moves forward.

A hearing before U.S. District Judge Morrison England, Jr. is scheduled for Friday.

A graduate of California State University, Chico, Andre Byik is an award-winning journalist who has reported in Northern California since 2012. He joined North State Public Radio in 2020, following roles at the Chico Enterprise-Record and Chico News & Review.