Cold weather may have claimed its first local victim of the season on Nov. 16—the morning when Chico police officers responding to a 911 call found the body of 55-year-old Scott Walker in a tent near the intersection of Humboldt Avenue and Pine Street.
Walker’s tent was one of many in the area known as “The Triangle,” where homeless encampments have taken a firm hold since the city relaxed ordinances against public camping in April in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Overnight temperatures the night before Walker was found dead fell to around 40 degrees, and witnesses told police the victim had been sick for several days. A spokesperson for the Butte County Coroner’s office couldn’t confirm Walker’s cause of death as of Nov. 20, saying an autopsy would be performed but was yet to be scheduled.
In recent years, cold weather has caused or contributed to the deaths of several people on Chico’s streets, and 2020 threatens to be no different, with few shelter options available or on the horizon. This, in spite of the fact that the Chico City Council approved nearly $2 million in funding towards homeless issues more than a month ago, with some of the money intended for a “navigation center” that could have rapidly provided 160 to 300 emergency shelter beds for five months. However, now that funding is available the property—on Carmichael Drive—is not.
On Oct. 20, Chico City Council voted in favor of supporting seven of eight proposals meant to address homelessness in Chico, most of which originated from a Homelessness Opportunities Plan (HOP) introduced during a special city council meeting Sept. 22. The only element the council balked at was a last-minute addition by City Manager Mark Orme to establish a three-month sanctioned campground near the Chico Airport for an estimated cost of $700 thousand. Council members and citizens questioned both the cost of the camp and its location, which some said was inaccessible to those lacking transportation and far away from available services.
When first pitching the comprehensive homeless plan to council in September, Suzi Kochems, the city’s homeless solutions coordinator, said that the navigation center and a proposed 50-bed expansion/remodeling of the Torres Community Shelter (another element of the HOP) could potentially provide 210 beds by Nov. 1.
That optimistic estimate, however, was contingent on council’s immediate approval of the HOP that night. The council instead asked for more information and the item was agendized for potential action on Oct. 6, but bumped off the schedule then by a chock-full calendar that included budget talks from each department. A revised HOP—now re-dubbed the Quality of Life Plan—was mostly approved (sans the airport camping site) on Oct. 22.
However, according to emails provided to the Chico News & Review by community organization Stand Up For Chico, Joy Amaro of True North Housing Alliance—which is the lead organization working with the city and Safe Space Winter Shelter to establish the navigation center—informed Kochems Nov. 10 that the Carmichael site was no longer available.
Interviewed by phone last week (Nov. 20), Amaro—True North’s executive director—said that an attorney for the Carmichael building’s proprietor recently informed her that the owner is negotiating a lease with another party.
“I was trying to get enough money together for operations [at the navigation center], and it took so long we missed the window,” Amaro said. “It’s extremely frustrating, because every time I think we have momentum and it seems like we can get something done, we hit another brick wall.”
Amaro explained the city council’s approval of the Quality of Life Plan/HOP included $282 thousand dollars in Community Development Block Grant funding earmarked for COVID-19 relief to go toward the navigation center project. That money would have been used to outfit the Carmichael site with necessary items like shower and laundry trailers and pay for some of the costs of operating the center. She said the there still needed to be some contracts signed and public hearings held before the money would be rewarded.
True North has A Memorandum of Understanding with Safe Space to staff the site ready to go once a proper location is secured. Amaro said she and Deanna Schwab, president of Safe Space’s board of directors, have been actively seeking out alternative properties for a navigation center. Additionally, Safe Space is seeking a site to open a temporary winter shelter as soon as possible.
“There’s lots of empty warehouses [available in Chico], but they don’t have sprinklers or heating and air, which are the bare minimum factors we need,” Amaro said. “There’s other requirements as well, but we can use the funding that’s already been approved to help meet those as long as we have those two things.”
The city of Chico put out a press release Monday (Nov. 23) with updates to its “homeless opportunities” efforts. The release includes an extensive list of requirements needed for the navigation center site and urges citizens with any leads to contact Homeless Solutions Coordinator Kochems (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Regarding the Torres Shelter expansion—which the city agreed to contribute up to $300 thousand toward—the city’s press release reads that True North has secured a contractor to begin construction to add 50 new beds, but notes “there may be a delay in implementing this project as a result of COVID-19.”
For the last several years, the volunteer-run Safe Space Winter Shelter has provided low-barrier shelter space for the local homeless population that would rotate among churches throughout Chico. Last year the organization provided nine weeks of shelter at five separate churches, serving an average of 59 people each night, according to the its Website.
Though Safe Space shut down it’s rotating shelter in February, the organization has been involved in COVID-19 response since the pandemic outbreak in March, most notably in overseeing guest services for Project Roomkey, a state-initiated effort to house medically vulnerable homeless individuals in local motel rooms. Safe Space is also partnered with True North for that project.
On Wednesday (Nov. 25), Safe Space’s Schwab said the organization is not planning on a rotating shelter this year, but is looking for any vacant 5 to 10 thousand square foot building with sprinklers to rent for any period between 30 and 90 days. Like the city, she appealed to the public for leads.
“We have a crew of 30 COVID-trained staff ready to go at the drop of a hat, as soon as we have the space,” she said. “We just need a roof so that we can provide a roof for others.”
In the meantime, Safe Space is asking for monetary donations to purchase sleeping bags, tarps and cold-winter clothing clothing to distribute to various locations. Schwab said Safe Space can’t take donated items as they have no physical space to store them. Information about donating can be found at safespacechico.org.
The Chico chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America is also working to help the homeless through it’s Cold Weather Mutual Aid program. The group is collecting warm weather gear, first aid supplies, hygiene products and other items to distribute directly to unhoused individuals in need. More information is available at www.DSAChico.com.