Tuesday’s (Aug. 3) Chico City Council meeting kicked off with the swearing in of new members Michael O’Brien and Dale Bennett, and the two men took their new seats on the dais within 10 minutes of the meeting’s 6 p.m. start time. Over the next four hours, the appointees voted in lockstep with the council’s established conservative majority, a potential precedent that could last at least until the next election in November 2022.
Three items related to homelessness dominated deliberations Tuesday. The first was addressed even before the council reached the meat of the meeting. An item from the consent agenda (a list of relatively minor matters usually approved with no public discussion and a strike of the mayor’s gavel) regarding allocation of grant funding was singled out for further discussion.
According to a staff report, the council planned to direct $583,212 of Community Development Block Grant funding for COVID-19 relief toward services for the unhoused, with $49,900 proposed to go to Point of Contact for outreach and the balance to Caring Choices for casework, wrap-around services and more. Caring Choices began in 1993 and originally focused on AIDS and HIV awareness, but in the decades since has expanded services to include disaster case management, food pantries in Chico and Redding, outreach to the unhoused and more. Point of Contact was formed earlier this year and focuses on outreach with a “hand up, not hand out” philosophy.
“It is alarming that Point of Contact is being awarded $49,900 for a no-bid contract,” Angela McLaughlin, founder of citizen’s group Stand Up for Chico, said during public comment on the item. “It’s clear that number was specifically derived to give them the maximum amount possible without being required to solicit bids. It is worth noting that while several of the people involved in this organization seem to have good intentions, their practices have been questionable and, in some cases, have included posting pictures and videos of unhoused people without their permission.”
McLaughlin thanked Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds for recusing herself from the vote, noting that Reynolds started Verum Community Solutions—the nonprofit under which Point of Contact operates—in January 2020, before signing it over to the current operators in March 2021. “The gifting of almost $50,000 to this organization feels based on connections to council members and feels like it reeks of impropriety,” McLaughlin added.
Councilman Sean Morgan said he received last-minute calls from multiple people who expressed concern about Caring Choices being an untested organization and their ability to handle the work outlined in the request for services, prompting Councilwoman Alex Brown to defend the organization’s long history of service and offer that Point of Contact, in contrast, has only completed one contract—a survey of homeless individuals in Chico ordered by Butte County earlier this year.
Morgan moved to allocate the $583,212 toward the services outlined, but to not choose which entities receive the funding now, which was seconded by Mayor Andrew Coolidge. Brown offered a substitute motion to keep Caring Choices, which failed to get a second. Morgan’s motion passed 5-1, with Reynold’s recusing herself and Brown voting no.
An unexpected pause
The council handled a few more matters before reaching what was arguably the night’s most contentious agenda item, the tweaking of anti-camping and public storage ordinances geared toward Chico’s homeless population, and an urgency ordinance to immediately adopt the changes. During the ongoing Warren v. Chico civil case on behalf of eight homeless individuals, Judge Morrison C. England Jr. has expressed vehement disapproval for and questioned the constitutionality of the ordinances as they stand, saying they make it illegal for the unhoused to be in public since there limited shelter spaces available. During the hearing (July 8) at which a preliminary injunction against enforcing these ordinances was ordered, the judge added that the city’s current airport resting site did not constitute a shelter.
The city’s proposed changes include new or expanded definitions of terms like “camp,” “personal property” and “shelter space” as they relate to the ordinances; clarification that enforcement will not occur against unsheltered individuals when shelter space is unavailable; and adds a new subsection including further exemptions to unlawful camping in emergency situations and for city-approved or sponsored overnight events.
Instead of beginning a public conversation, Coolidge said the council would be moving into closed session for a brief discussion, at the urging of City Attorney Vincent Ewing. This prompted shouting and questions from the audience; Coolidge countered with threats to clear the chambers. A motion to move to closed session was made by Morgan, seconded by Reynolds and passed 6-1 with Brown voting against.
About 30 minutes later, the council returned. Ewing began by explaining the changes were a “clean up” of the laws to make them pass judicial muster, and that he was not advising the City Manager to begin enforcement immediately. He said it is his “strong recommendation” to continue to honor the preliminary injunction currently protecting unhoused campers from enforcement actions.
Eight public speakers weighed in on the item, all of whom spoke out against the ordinance changes and were critical of the what they saw as the city’s past efforts to paint the unhoused as criminals. Most said the ordinances would continue to harm that population while doing nothing to help or solve the problem. Some said rushing to change them could make it appear as though the city was defying England and his court orders.
Morgan ultimately moved to adopt the ordinances but not as an urgency measure, which was seconded by Coolidge. Reynolds broke ranks with her conservative colleagues to vote against.
“While I absolutely agree we need to update our ordinances, I think it’s premature,” she said. “There’s so many moving parts right now, I’m personally not comfortable moving forward with this tonight. We have two brand new council members who were just barely updated on where the case stands just a few minutes ago. I don’t think this is an emergency and I think it should be tabled for future discussion. There’s some verbiage in here I feel needs more clarity and I’m not comfortable with, so tonight I will not be supporting this item.”
The motion passed 5-2, with Reynolds and Brown voting against.
Another hot-button item related to homelessness was a proposal to hire Paul Webster and his organization, the Hope Street Coalition, to develop a homeless strategic plan proposal. Webster spoke to the council on July 6, and several citizens spoke out against the San Diego-based consultant’s message then, saying he favors placing the unhoused into large congregate shelters and that his methods go against the Housing First model—which focuses on the need for housing before treatment of drug addiction, mental health or other issues, and is the model favored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal and state authorities. In news articles and videos available online, Webster has said housing people before addressing their mental illness and substance abuse issues is a waste of resources.
At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Mark Orme pitched for the city to hire Webster’s organization to collect data and formulate a plan to address homelessness. The city would pay Hope Street Coalition $49,950 to have this plan developed and potentially enacted by April 2022. Orme mentioned the city would forego hiring a new homeless solutions coordinator to pay Webster’s group.
Nine citizen speakers addressed the agenda item from the floor, with all but one—local lawyer Rob Berry—speaking against hiring Hope Street.
“Hope Street, founded only on February 4th of this year, is a coalition of one,” Julian Zener said. “Paul Webster has no track record of any programs for the homeless recommended and brought to completion. His pathetic website, if you’ve looked, consists of two testimonials and one amicus brief.”
Councilwoman Brown took her full three minutes to comment on the item, railing against the idea that the city should hire an untested agency whose founder “neglects evidence-based practices in favor of ideology and addressing symptoms.
“I would have never have voted to approve the Hope Street presentation if there was an indication it was actually a sales pitch for the city of Chico by a brand new organization with no track record of developing strategic plans to address homelssness at the municipal level,” she said.
“Mr. Webster didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know and presented no tangible policy ideas.”
Reynolds countered to defend Webster’s credentials, noting he served in several capacities including as a senior policy advisor for HUD.
The council voted 6-1 in favor of hiring Webster’s group. Brown was the only dissenter, answering “Absolutely not!” during the call for votes.