By Scott Huber
The City Council’s recent vote to direct the Chico Police Department to discontinue the “eviction” of people experiencing homelessness from existing camps during the current public health emergency was a painful but necessary process.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published guidance for responding to coronavirus among unsheltered populations. The primary directive is clear: “Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Concurrently, the council was informed by community members that, amid the confusion over best practices to control the spread of the coronavirus, officers were observed asking unsheltered people to remove their tents.
Listed on the meeting’s agenda, under City Manager’s Report, were the topics of homelessness and COVID-19. During this report, Vice Mayor Alex Brown made a motion to (paraphrased) “discontinue the eviction of persons experiencing homelessness from encampments during the Public Health Emergency.” The legality of council taking action on a city manager’s report was questioned, and the city attorney advised that only by labeling it an emergency motion could it be allowed. In response, the vice mayor amended the motion as an emergency, the motion was seconded by me, and then voted for by me, Brown and Councilmen Karl Ory and Randall Stone (Mayor Ann Schwab and Councilmembers Sean Morgan and Kasey Reynolds opposed).
During the council’s debate on the motion, the police chief had made clear that his officers were using discretion in their handling of growing encampments and indicated that the department could continue in that vein. So, why codify the action? The reason is simple: to assure clarity in complying with CDC guidance by providing specific direction and therefore removing ambiguity from the handling of encampments during this public health emergency.
We know that homeless individuals are vulnerable to the disease for various reasons: substandard health due to being malnourished, inadequate access to sanitation, and less understanding of and compliance with health and safety guidelines. But the implications go beyond just this population. As recognized by the CDC, in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, unhoused people who are forced to change locations or groupings pose a risk of spreading infection not only to other unhoused people but also to social workers, health care workers, public safety workers and ultimately to the community at large.
While the council’s action was needed, we know that this is only a Band-Aid. We must work harder to address the impacts of homelessness by helping unhoused people with solutions along a continuum that includes sanctioned campgrounds, low-barrier shelters, tiny houses and long-term housing. Recent actions in Chico include the city hiring a homeless solutions coordinator and a request for information from groups interested in creating extremely low-income housing on city-owned land. Both show promise that progress on the bigger picture may be forthcoming.
Reducing the impacts of homelessness in our community has been my No. 1 priority as a council member. By first addressing and solving the challenges experienced by unhoused people, we thereby begin to solve the challenges that homelessness poses to those of us with the good fortune of having a roof over our heads.
The author is a member of the Chico City Council.