While trying to wrap our minds around the horrific loss of life and 14,000 homes, we might also take note of the fact that thousands of Camp Fire victims are in the ranks of the 60 percent of Americans with no assets: the working poor, the elderly and the disabled, who occupied much of the affordable housing in Paradise.
In Butte County alone, we needed 2,000 more affordable homes before the fire. If we had a shelter crisis then, we have a shelter catastrophe now. How many more will be chronically homeless is anyone’s guess.
The focus of Chico Friends on the Street is not on building affordable dwellings, though the need is beyond obvious. Our focus is on human rights in our public space.
Here’s what Chico can do to protect the human rights of those who end up on our streets: 1) Immediately provide 24-hour restrooms and/or portable toilets citywide. 2) Establish the “right to rest” and fully recognize that sleeping cannot be criminalized without violating the Eighth Amendment. 3) Decriminalize homelessness, with the elimination of sit-lie laws, storage laws, etc. 4) Improve the distribution of necessities, including food, winter clothing, blankets and other materials. 5) Create more points of contact: warming/cooling centers and soup kitchens. Retain our only downtown kitchen, which is now in jeopardy. 6) Promote a spirit of inclusion and resist the impulse to patronize, coerce and “consolidate” the homeless.
In an unforgiving, competitive economy, with increasingly unjust wealth distribution, homelessness is a highly visible, self-inflicted wound. A symptom. The Camp Fire brings us into another era in living with that symptom, but I’ve never met a homeless person whose life did not burn down at some point.
The task remains the same: In the midst of an intractable housing crisis—a systemic failure, 40 years in the making—we must reduce suffering, while ensuring that human rights and autonomy are respected. This is only possible in a city willing to share its public space.
(Chico Friends on the Street is at City Plaza every Sunday at noon.)