More protests at chambers

Before the City Council convened, two public actions took place outside

Attorney Kelli Johnson speaks at "Housing & Homeless Human Rights Town Hall" outside City Council chambers Tuesday night (March 16). (Photo by Ken Smith)

Two distinctly different protests took place outside of the Chico City Council chambers Tuesday (March 16), where about 100 people gathered to support the city’s unhoused population, and a much smaller group demanded the council lift COVID-19 restrictions and allow in-person public participation at its meetings.

The larger protest—aimed at criticizing ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments and the city’s lack of action in helping provide shelter options—was a sequel to the protest held at the last council meeting on March 2. However, while the earlier protest included a “die-in” that led to two protesters being cited and one of them arrested, this week’s action took the less-chaotic form of a well-organized community forum dubbed the Housing & Homeless Human Rights Town Hall.

The roughly hour-long event, hosted by a coalition of homeless advocates called Butte County Shelter for All, began shortly after 5 p.m. and featured a number of speakers from the activist and service-provider communities. Those included Kelli Johnson, an attorney currently preparing a class-action lawsuit against the city over encampment sweeps; Robert Van Fleet, the man arrested at the March 2 die-in; and Larry Halstead, an unhoused Camp Fire survivor who has been documenting the city’s sweeps and was himself cited for illegal camping.

After a series of speeches and introductions, a panel that included Siana Sonoquie (from Safe Space Winter Shelter), Patrick Newman (Chico Friends on the Streets) and Charles Withuhn (North State Shelter Team) fielded questions from the audience and forum moderator Steven Marquardt.

When asked what the biggest obstacles against opening shelters were, Withuhn noted that the city, county and state have all formally declared there is a shelter crisis, but have not properly prioritized the problem.

“This is the most urgent crisis and the most dramatic tragedy to hit the streets and parks of Chico in my lifetime, but we’re not acting like it yet.” Several times during the forum, Withuhn contended the city has available properties to allow emergency sanctioned camping and shelter operations, including at least 20 vacant properties and hundreds of acres dedicated to cattle grazing.

Sonoquie’s criticism was more pointed. “The biggest problem we have is obstructionists getting in the way of every damned project that comes along,” she said. “I’m not just talking about obstructionists we see that are blatant and overtly not wanting to provide services … but the people people who want incremental change when that’s not what we need. We need drastic change right now.

“We can’t even find a building [to provide shelter] because everybody’s question is, ‘How will the community react?’” she continued. “That’s not even a question we should be asking. … We need to get people inside immediately.”

View from the inside

Meanwhile, during the council meeting, the only agenda item related to homelessness was for the council to receive and file a report from Suzi Kochems, the city’s homeless solutions coordinator, regarding “additional shelter beds.” The council accepted the report with no discussion of the information provided.

Kochem’s report includes spaces to accommodate 390 people that will reportedly be available in the future, including 160 beds at the Jesus Center’s new Renewal Center–planned by July, 2022—and 100 beds through affordable housing efforts by Feb. 2023. It also includes the 20 beds coming to Chico Housing Action Team’s Everhart Village by December of this year.

Homeless advocates have criticized the report on social media, saying that the shelter beds described are only projected and do nothing to provide shelter now, as the city continues sweeping homeless encampments. Furthermore, they do not all qualify as emergency shelter for those in immediate need.

Kochem’s report—and other lists circulated on social media that erroneously claim there are open shelter beds in Chico—prompted CHAT to issue a public statement on March 18 clarifying its programs and services.

“Shelters are very important and desperately needed in Chico, but CHAT’s focus is permanent housing and CHAT has no ‘overnight only’ or emergency sheltering programs at present,” the statement reads.

“The 175 people CHAT currently provides housing for are permanent residents who pay rent, live in their homes full-time, and cook for themselves. The difference is they are provided with support services from our case managers, friendship and encouragement from CHAT volunteers, and referrals to help them learn skills that will help them remain housed. CHAT currently has a backlog of 216 applications from homeless residents seeking permanent housing.”

As for Everhart Village, CHAT clarified that the tiny house community will only be open to referrals from Butte County Behavioral Health.

The sideshow

As the council meeting’s 6 p.m. start time approached, about 15 people gathered near the chamber’s front steps—a short distance from where the homeless advocates were set up on the building’s lawn—carrying signs with messages like “LET US IN” and “OPEN NOW.”

Cynthia Joy (holding “Open Now” sign) leads a second group of protesters outside the City Council meeting who were voicing complaints about COVID-19 restrictions on in-person attendance at meetings. (Photo by Ken Smith)

In contrast to the larger group, these protesters were largely unmasked, leading to a few tense words between them and masked homeless advocates. Some from the smaller group asserted their right not to wear a mask, which was central to their message.

One of the protesters, Cynthia Joy, said her compatriots want city council meetings to open immediately. She said she does not believe the COVID-19 pandemic amounts to a public health emergency and that face coverings and lockdowns are unnecessary and cause more harm than good. She also alleged that closing meetings amounts to the council violating the Brown Act.

“Other counties have opened, they’re open for public comment,” she said. “We’re having problems with city council and the board of supervisors not even reading public comments that are written submissions, and we’ve had incidents where they’ve been completely edited out.”

Joy also spoke to the CN&R at a Dec. 3 rally outside of of the Butte County Health Department’s Chico office, where she gave more information about her beliefs that COVID is being used as a power grab by some elected officials.

“I feel like they are no longer beholden to us as taxpayers,” she said. “I believe that hey are getting paid by the United Nations, the Marxist conglomerate of China, Russia, the Middle East, and [George] Soros. … I believe it is a Marxist, globalist takeover of America.”

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