Over the past eight months in Chico, five homeless people have died either on public rights of way or outdoors on private property. At least a dozen other unhoused individuals have perished elsewhere, at Enloe Medical Center or in temporary shelter accommodations established because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the death toll and the fact that the coronavirus poses an imminent threat to the lives of people on the streets, city leaders have chosen to make life harder on this population. As Ken Smith reports in this issue (see “Death by homelessness”), twice in the past month, they’ve instructed the Chico Police Department to clear public spaces of encampments—first at Lower Bidwell Park and then at the sliver of greenway between Cypress and Pine streets known as The Triangle.
That the City Council majority would set this course at the same time that human beings are dying in full view of the world says a lot, not only about them but also the community at large. To hell with the suffering of these people. To hell with the fact that razing the encampments has destroyed the belongings, ever so meager, these people need to survive on the streets. To hell with the life and death consequences of playing this game of whack-a-mole.
Our question: Where the hell do they think these people are going to go?
We get that having campsites within the park isn’t ideal—that there are environmental concerns and the average Chicoan isn’t comfortable seeing the spaces used that way. But once again, and we cannot stress this enough, the fact remains that there isn’t anywhere else.
Many of those who were rousted from Lower Bidwell Park made their way to The Triangle. Those later booted from that location then headed to the southern edge of town, to the Comanche Creek Greenway. Soon enough, that spot will be the next location targeted for cleansing. Where will people go then? Downtown? The bike paths? Further into the parks? Private property? Realistically, without the city providing a sanctioned campsite, those are the places they will end up.
It’s true that the city can’t solve homelessness. That would take a massive response from the federal government, something akin to the New Deal programs Franklin D. Roosevelt launched during the Great Depression to immediately address the economic crisis of that time. But since that hasn’t happened—and who knows if or when this ever will—it’s increasingly incumbent on local governments to help the communities they serve.
As of now, we are less than impressed with the conservative council’s progress on providing an alternative. We could say the same thing about the formerly liberal council, but at least most of the members of that panel had compassion for those living on the streets.
Indeed, the current council majority says things like people on the streets choose to be there. They refer to homeless people as transients, a dehumanizing term that doesn’t accurately describe the individuals who in most cases have long lived in the area. And they see the encampments as a measure that’s made the homeless population too comfortable, as though living in a tent in the dead of winter is a lifestyle choice. Their actions tell us everything we need to know—that they don’t care that human beings are literally dying on our streets.
We’ve realized over the years that we can’t appeal to the conscience of people who have none. Therefore, we’ll try to speak the language this council understands by pointing out the city is facing a very real threat of litigation based on civil rights violations related to the park evictions. Such an outcome, and the financial cost as a result, will fall squarely on the members who choose this heartless and ultimately fruitless path to addressing homelessness. We think that money would be better spent on shelter accommodations. Until such a facility is up and running, however, the council must halt its advances on clearing public spaces. It’s both the moral and legally prudent thing to do.