Shelter on horizon?

City Council finds gray area regarding emergency housing options and bans syringe access programs

The sun rises one cold morning over a homeless encampment in Lower Bidwell Park. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

The Chico City Council made a surprise move toward establishing temporary shelter for the homeless and an unsurprising move to ban sterile syringe programs at its Tuesday (Jan. 5) meeting.

Near the beginning of the meeting, Councilman Sean Morgan asked to add an urgent discussion about shelter possibilities to an already packed agenda, based on late-breaking developments. The city’s efforts to find a suitable building to house shelter has been held up by the city’s interpretation of state law requiring that such structures have fire sprinkler systems. That rule has also made it impossible for Safe Space Winter Shelter to open its seasonal rotating shelters at local churches—as it had done for several years—this winter.

That impediment may have been unnecessary, according to information Morgan presented in council chambers this week. He began his presentation by giving props to Councilman Scott Huber, who at a recent meeting proposed the city appeal to Assemblyman James Gallagher to find a way to circumvent the requirement. Huber said he reached out to Gallagher two weeks ago.

At some point, Gallagher began having conversations with Morgan about the subject, and according to Morgan the assemblyman helped facilitate communication with Kyle Krause, acting deputy director of codes and standards for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Morgan shared excerpts from emails from Krause that seem to indicate sprinklers aren’t required for an emergency shelter.

City Attorney Andrew Jared offered clarification that the sprinklers wouldn’t be required if the city leases the building, but would be if a private entity did. This led to the conclusion that the city could make arrangements to lease a local church or other building and sublet or partner with a shelter service provider—Morgan suggested Safe Space—to prepare and open a shelter as soon as a willing facility can be found.

The council voted 6-1 to direct city staff to take that action. The sole dissenting vote was from newly elected Councilwoman Kami Denlay.

“Safe Space is encouraged by the bipartisanship we saw at the city council meeting last night,” Deanna Schwab—President of Safe Space’s board of directors—said Wednesday (Jan. 6).

“We’re hopeful we can open additional shelter beds,” she continued. “The big questions are ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’ We don’t have answers to those questions, but we are still continuing to talk with the City Council, building owners and churches.”

Denlay explained her no vote in a long message posted to her Facebook page Wednesday, dubbing the discussion “Sprinkler Gate.” She cited concerns about the city entering into a subletting situation and that she felt it is unfair for churches to be allowed to open as homeless shelters while not allowing worship due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“Equal application of the mandates would be ideal here,” she wrote. “If gathering in church isn’t allowed for Christians, why would we allow it for another population?”

Needles and essential business

After more than a year of occasional flare-ups of heated debate, the City Council voted 5-2 (with council members Huber and Alex Brown voting nay) to pass an ordinance banning “syringe exchange programs” within the city of Chico.

The council was given options to pass the ban as an emergency ordinance, meaning it would be read Tuesday, enacted immediately and expire in 180 days, or as a permanent change to the city’s municipal code. Denlay moved to do both, and the vote was passed along party lines.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, council voted unanimously to change the council’s meeting schedule and only discuss essential business items as the COVID-19 crisis continues, based on a Dec. 15 request from Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds to agendize that discussion. Moving forward, council meetings will be held only on the first Tuesday of each month, unless a special meeting is called.

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