Despite the fact that no new local shelter options have manifested, Chico Police and city staff mobilized en masse yesterday (Feb. 4) to once again break up one of the city’s homeless encampments, this time the large camp located on an island of green grass between Pine and Cypress Streets known as The Triangle.
The encampment took root early last spring at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, when the previous city council relaxed camping laws to comply with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to protect the unhoused and the general public during the coronavirus pandemic. The sweep was the second large-scale enforcement action against the encampments since the new conservative-heavy council passed an ordinance criminalizing camping in city parks and waterways. Campers were rousted from Lower Bidwell Park on Jan. 12.
The Triangle was abuzz with activity leading up to the sweep, as camp residents hurriedly prepared to move before the expected noon arrival of Chico Police and city staff. More than a dozen advocates for the unhoused helped people take down tents and pack their belongings into trucks to move them away from the area. Another dozen people stood at the south end of The Triangle, holding signs in protest of the city’s enforcement action, as homeless supporters have done daily since 72-hour eviction notices were first delivered to campers there on Jan. 22.
“The human rights story: Here you have all these people who, because of an anomaly, have been allowed to set up tents and establish some kind of shelter in the middle of winter and the middle of an epidemic,” said Patrick Newman of Chico Friends on the Street. “The reason we’ve been out here the last 12 days doing this is to try to get some buy-off on the idea that we actually defend this camp, and to try to prevent the eviction.
“It’s another attempt to try to look at human rights in the public space and advocate for those—along with toilets, and people having stuff they need and not being constantly rousted and criminalized. Sleeping is one the issues.”
The city called off plans to enforce the Jan. 22 notices last week due to bad weather. New notices were issued midday on Monday (Feb. 1), and officers visited the area shortly after 8 a.m. yesterday to say enforcement would begin at noon.
That deadline passed with no police in sight, leading to some speculation among campers and the crowd of helpers who’d gathered that the sweep might be held off until the following morning. That speculation was proven wrong at around 12:40 p.m., when police arrived to shut down through traffic on Pine and Cypress streets and city workers and vehicles—including dump trucks and a large tractor—poured into the area.
Upon arrival, police and a park ranger gave campers 15 minutes to pack up their belongings and move along. They informed campers they would hold any belongings they were unable to move for up to 90 days. Some campers took them up on the offer while others, visibly upset and flustered by the situation, abandoned their property. Anything left behind was stacked into large piles for the tractor to scoop into a trash truck.
The Jan. 12 Lower Bidwell Park Sweep was overseen by Sgt. Cesar Sandoval, then head of the Chico Police Department’s Target Team. Sandoval has since resigned from that position, and the vacancy has been filled by Sgt. Paul Ratto.
“We’re going to ask for voluntary compliance, and if there’s no voluntary compliance then we’ll issue a citation or arrest if people don’t leave the work zone,” Ratto said during the sweep. He deferred further questions to Lt. Mike Williams, who was also on site.
Speaking to reporters and protesters, Williams reiterated Ratto’s statement on voluntary compliance and the officer’s direction to cite or arrest those who didn’t comply. He refused to answer questions about changes to the Target Team leadership, saying it was a personnel issue. Asked where people were supposed to go with no available shelter space and other encampments subject to future sweeps he said, “That’s a question for city council.”
Kelli Johnson, an attorney who is threatening legal action against the city over sweeps, told Williams and others officers and city workers that they were violating campers’ Constitutional rights. She cited Martin v. City of Boise, a recent federal court case that upheld the right for unhoused individuals to sleep outdoors in public places if no alternatives are provided.
Legal challenges to the city’s sweeps are also being mounted by Legal Services of Northern California. Contacted via email yesterday, LSNC Attorney Cory Turner said he couldn’t currently comment on that action.
By 3 p.m., all tents, campers, protesters and city staff were gone, leaving a clear swath of green grass surrounded by yellow police tape. No arrests were made, nor were any citations issued.
The Triangle has been the subject of intense public debate since the encampment there took hold. Highlighting this rift in public opinion, advocacy group Stand Up For Chico put out a statement the day of the sweep condemning the evictions, encouraging protests as roustings continue and tasking people to email city council members asking for an end to evictions without shelter options. Conservative PAC Citizens for a Safe Chico, on the other hand, praised Chicoans who voted for the current council and in an email encouraged its supporters to back more sweeps.
“Enforcement will NOT continue to happen unless we all continue to support the City Council,” the message reads. “Send our Councilmembers an email right now to say thank you for promoting both compassion and accountability.”