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Low-Barrier Homeless Shelter Could Open As Early As June

Where to house those who are experiencing homelessness is an ongoing and contentious issue in Chico. While there’s no doubt there’s a need for more shelters—especially after thousands were displaced after November’s Camp Fire—the location of a new shelter is something locals are having a hard time resolving. 

Currently the City of Chico has three homeless shelters: the Torres Shelter, the Jesus Center, and when it’s freezing outside, the rotating Safe Space Winter Shelter that’s open for 12 weeks out of the year. But after the Camp Fire, service providers are worried these spaces aren’t enough to provide adequate accommodation for those experiencing homelessness. Rick Narad, operations manager for Safe Space, said that’s why they began working together to resurrect a newshelter that would have fewer restrictions, be closer to the downtown area, and be open all year long. 

“We’ve always known there was a need for a year-round low barrier shelter and that was our plan,” Narad said. “Last year after the Camp Fire, the Walmart Foundation gave a $1 million donation to the North Valley Community Foundation and the goal was to have a low-barrier shelter. The partnership that was created between the Safe Space Winter Shelter, the Jesus Center and the Torres Shelter was to try to expand those services.” 

I met Narad at the proposed location, which is on Orange Street about a third of a mile from Chico State. There we talked a lot about the challenges the proposal has faced, including the Jesus Center’s recent decision to withdraw from the project and the university’s disapproval. 

Chico State’s president Gayle Hutchinson sent a letter to the Chico City Council urging it to find a new location. Narad, also a faculty member at Chico State, expressed his disappointment for this letter.

“One of the things that’s made me proud of Chico is the involvement with the community,” Narad said. “I think CAVE and programs like that are just incredible models for the whole country of how universities can be involved in their communities, so I was very disappointed to see the letter where the university said this was a good idea but they didn’t want it close, they didn’t want it in their neighborhood.”

Community members and panelists gathered at Chico State to discuss the pros and cons of moving forward with this project. Many of the audience applauded the panelists’ support of the low-barrier shelter. 

Associated Students Director of Legislative Affairs and incoming president Trevor Guthrie discussed how many the university’s students are homeless. He said that he could never imagine having to maintain going to school, working a few jobs and having a healthy lifestyle while being homeless.

“The students that come in experiencing homelessness that ask for help through the housing Basic Needs Initiative are students just like me,” Guthrie said. “They’re sitting next to me in class and I have no idea. If this shelter could just help one of those students earn their degree and give back to society, don’t you think it’s done its job?” 

Panelist Rob Berry of Chico First has many concerns involving this low-barrier shelter, such as how do these shelters fix the homelessness problem if the homeless return to the streets the next day. He wants to know how to regulate the homelessness industry, as he refers to it.

“The goal should be to get people off the street and to keep them off, not to just turn them back after a good night’s sleep,” Berry said. “Where is the accountability component in any of the sheltering plans you’ve been hearing about?” 

Berry then asked if it was compassionate to allow people to live on the street “and continue to be victimized.” 

“My answer is no, but we have to be intelligent about what we’re trying to do for them,” Berry said. 

Many community members asked Berry to expand on his speech. He mentioned how the next step after a low-barrier shelter is rehabilitation for homeless with drug addiction.

“So if we’re going to shelter people, we’re going to put people in housing first, great. I’m supportive of that. But what comes second? If you’re a drug addict, in a house, you’re a junkie in the home,” Berry said. “So you need to be separated from your drugs and you need to go into rehab.”

The proposed low-barrier shelter could house around 100 people a night and would have paid staff there 24/7, as well as volunteers. There would be access to mental health resources and job training, according to Narad. The proposed opening for the Orange Street Shelter is June 15, 2019.