After weeks of uncertainty and months of heated public debate, the city of Chico made good on pledges to step up enforcement against homeless campers Tuesday morning (Jan. 12), as dozens of city workers and Chico Police Department (CPD) personnel broke up encampments in Lower Bidwell Park.
The sweeps began at about 8:30 a.m., as a large tractor rolled into the horseshoe pit area near Sycamore Pool. The yellow behemoth maneuvered around protesters who’d gathered to voice opposition to the crackdown in light of the fact that the city has failed to provide camping or shelter alternatives and local service providers are currently unable to accomodate new guests.
During the sweep, city workers gathered campers’ belongings into trash cans they dumped into a large pile, which the tractor then carried to dump trucks staged nearby. Sgt. Cesar Sandoval of the CPD’s Target Team was on hand to field questions and criticisms from peaceful but passionate protesters who decried the sweep as inhumane and illegal.
“I agree they need to have a place to go, and we should work on that together,” Sandoval said in response to homeless advocate Patrick Newman, one of many people who asked where people are supposed to relocate. Though he referred direct questions from the media to CPD Chief Matt Madden, Sandoval was also overheard saying that city staff and police were merely doing their jobs and carrying out the will of the City Council.
Tuesday’s action focused on the encampments west of One Mile Recreation Area to the park’s entrance. It is the first of what promises to be a series of roustings in areas where campers have congregated since March, when the previous left-leaning City Council relaxed rules against public camping to comply with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines aimed at aiding social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19 among the vulnerable homeless population.
Lead-up to the bust-up
Despite allotting more than $2 million towards homeless issues in October—with some of the money earmarked to establish shelter beds and sanctioned campgrounds—the city has not realized efforts to provide those resources. Still, the City Council—which flipped to a conservative majority in November, driven largely by those candidates’ promises to break up the encampments—passed an ordinance Dec. 1 elevating the breaking of park rules to criminal offenses, a stepping stone to the sweeps that are now officially underway.
Police and park rangers have spent the last several weeks visiting camps and informing denizens about impending enforcement, but city officials have been vague about when this would begin or how it would be carried out. That became more clear when 72-hour eviction notices were issued to some campers in Lower Bidwell Park last Thursday (Jan. 7). Roughly half of the campers had moved out of the area by Tuesday morning.
Anticipating Tuesday’s action, protesters began gathering at Bidwell Park’s Cypress Street entrance at about 7:30 a.m. Roughly 50 people had shown up by 8 a.m., and about half moved to the horseshoe pits when city workers began breaking up the camps located there.
As the protesters gathered, Bryce Hodge was among a handful of campers breaking down their belongings near the park entrance in order to move before police and city workers arrived.
“I found a place right on the edge of town, but it’s going to be a difficult move,” Hodge said, explaining he has medical issues that have forced him to the visit the hospital a half-dozen times in recent months. “It’s especially confusing, because I was told to move here three months ago when I was staying elsewhere.
“They pretty much corralled us in here, and now they’re telling us we have to move but that we can be arrested for camping anywhere we go in city limits.
“I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he added. “None of us do.”
`Making problems worse’
While the conservatives on City Council have made apparent their objective to empty the encampments, Alex Brown and Scott Huber—the only left-leaning holdovers of the progressive-majority council—have remained steadfast in their stance that campers shouldn’t be forced to move without the city providing alternatives.
Huber stood among the protesters Tuesday morning, carrying a sign reading, “NO EVICTIONS without SANCTIONED CAMPGROUND.”
Interviewed Monday (Jan. 11), Brown voiced her opposition to moving campers. She criticized what she deemed a lack of transparency by city staff regarding how and when enforcement of camping laws would be carried out, saying that she—as well as service providers and advocates—have had to rely on information circulated by word of mouth after enforcement steps were already underway.
“City staff has been given vast deference on how to move forward with this action, and now they’re implementing it in a big way without giving any information,” she said. “The public has been completely excluded from the conversation regarding these actions and had to learn from rumors or from people on the street.
“It’s ironic that in a moment when the most vulnerable are being threatened, everyone—myself, service providers, concerned citizens—has to rely on them for information.”
Brown said this is especially concerning in the case of service providers who will be faced with serving the needs of a newly uprooted unhoused population against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m angry and I’m frustrated, and from comments I’ve heard from other councilmembers, it’s apparent they just want the camps to go away and think that will solve everything,” she said. “But this can’t be fixed with a snap of the fingers.
“Forcing people to just move around and handing out citations or arresting people aren’t substantive or helpful ways to address these issues. It’s ultimately just causing more suffering and making problems worse.”
More to come
The only official communication from the city in the days leading up to Tuesday’s sweep was a news release issued Monday that was largely aimed at quelling rumors that the city was moving forward with plans to establish a shelter at the vacant Kmart building on Pillsbury Road or at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds.
The press release, like previous communications from the city, is ambiguous about when and how park camping regulations would be enforced. It reads: “As the City Council directed at the December 1, 2020 regular meeting, enforcement of all park rules and regulations will continue to occur, allowing for heightened enforcement of illegal behaviors within these public spaces, thereby amplifying the level of accountability and public expectation of safety, cleanliness, and environmental stewardship within these areas.”
Lynda Gizzi, the city’s public information officer, offered more specific information on Tuesday after the sweep had already begun. She said that 44 eviction notices had been issued thus far to campers in Bidwell Park between Highway 99 and Annie’s Glen.
“Notices will continue to be issued throughout the areas identified in the ordinance,” she said. Those areas include “The Triangle” area between Pine and Cypress streets, Humboldt Park, the Comanche Creek Greenway and other parts of Bidwell Park. “The Chico Police Department will continue to issue eviction notices based on their prioritization of calls for service, their staffing levels, and the areas where they are seeing illegal activities and the degradation of the environment in our parks and waterways.”
Though it’s unclear as of press time if there were any arrests made or citations issued during Tuesday’s rousting, Gizzi said those responses remain possible as the city clears additional encampments.
“We continue to seek voluntary compliance but will be moving forward with enforcement in the upcoming days and weeks,” she said. “Citations and arrests may be warranted based upon illegal behaviors and actions taking place.”
As far as where people should go, Gizzi said the city is directing campers to contact local service providers and that the city “has been in continuous communication with local services providers so that they can be prepared to offer services to those people affected.”
On Monday, Joy Amaro—executive director of True North Housing Alliance, which runs the Torres Community Shelter—said she was not given advance warning about eviction notices last week or of this week’s sweep. She also confirmed that the Torres Shelter is not accepting new guests due to the COVID crisis and has not been accepting them since Butte County reentered the purple tier in November.
Safe Space Winter Shelter has not opened this year due to the city’s strict adherence to state rules saying that buildings used as shelters need to have sprinkler systems—an edict the city has backed away from since the Jan. 5 council meeting when Councilman Sean Morgan introduced a plan to circumvent that rule and partner with Safe Space to sublet a building. But the city has yet to announce any movement on that endeavor.
This all leaves the question asked again and again by the unhoused and their allies—“Where are people supposed to go?”—unanswered.
“All that we’ve heard and continue to hear from city officials is where people can’t be,” Brown said, “not where they can be.”