Editorial: Admit failure and refocus on homelessness

It’s interesting how there’s such a deep partisan divide regarding homelessness considering that, when we get down to the core issue, most people agree that getting destitute folks into stable housing is the ultimate solution. It should be a unifying goal, one in which even the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum can set aside their differences for the greater good.

We’d love to see that happen. In theory, it could happen. After all, getting folks off the streets and into housing would appease the so-called “homeless haters” and “homeless helpers” alike. Which is why we are disturbed and deflated watching the Chico City Council operating in such bad faith on the issue.

We see this time and again as the council orders staff to raze the encampments in Bidwell Park and elsewhere. We, and the community at large, are tired of this misplaced focus. As we’ve stated before, this game of whack-a-mole causes great human suffering and does nothing to alleviate the crisis.

The city knows that partnering with organizations with a proven track record is the way forward. We’ve seen glimmers of hope, first in the fall when the former council earmarked funding for True North Housing Alliance (provider of the Torres Community Shelter) for a new facility that ultimately fell through.

Months later, in February, the new conservative panel voted to allocate COVID-related federal funding to the Chico Housing Action Team for the establishment of noncongregate shelter at an old hotel. Though CHAT typically isn’t focused on emergency shelter, the organization was willing to take on that endeavor as a way to jump-start an eventual new permanent housing location. It was a unique plan from an organization that has the experience to pull it off. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond CHAT and the city’s control, that plan also has fallen through.

While we appreciate the city’s attempt at recent partnerships, and we certainly think they should be explored further, such collaboration simply isn’t enough. Indeed, the city needs to take control.

For starters, the council must stop balking at the thought of using general fund dollars for emergency sheltering options. The city manager and homeless solutions coordinator have presented several viable scenarios, including legal camping and tiny home projects, as outlined in a Feb. 2 staff report. However, months after that report’s release, the city has not created a single emergency shelter bed. Not one.

Contrary to a narrative from city leaders who point to projects of local service providers as an adequate supply, the reality is that additional beds are actually months (and in some cases years) from fruition.

Yet another fallacious message circulating the social media sphere is that homeless people prefer living a nomadic lifestyle, a theory that applies to such a small subset of the local homeless population that it’s basically negligible. However, we’re sure it plays well with those who believe the city should do literally nothing to aid the needy.

But where has that gotten us? Look around: Homeless people still live in and around Chico’s public spaces—at no lesser degree than months ago—despite the city’s continual efforts to move them along.

Moreover, city leaders ordered the evictions knowing full well that local shelter organizations were running at capacity and in the face of warnings from civil rights attorneys regarding the subsequent illegality. The proverbial other shoe has yet to drop on that sticky matter, but we’re fairly certain it’s inevitable and will be expensive.

When the city is on the hook for hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars in restitution, that outcome will rest squarely on the shoulders of the five council members who gave the marching orders.

What a shame. That money and the funds the city has spent booting homeless people—an effort that continues to this very day—could pay not only for temporary emergency shelter but also for long-term solutions. Fact is, helping homeless folks get off the streets and transition to stable housing is the fiscally responsible, legal and, yes, moral way of addressing the local crisis.

That’s not going to change. Question is: Will the council admit failure and do what’s required? For everyone’s sake, we hope so.

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