We can’t help but think of how the city of Chico would have reacted if the person recently gunned down in a public greenway hadn’t been homeless. Think about it. Let’s say your neighbor had been murdered in a park. Do you really think the totality of the communication from the police department would be a couple of short press releases? Doubtful.
Had virtually anyone else been hunted for sport—which is what appears to have occurred at Teichert Ponds on Sept. 4—we are certain the city would have responded quite differently.
We expect that the police chief would have held a press conference to say that his department wouldn’t rest until the assailant was found. He’d likely note that massive resources were being poured into an investigation, assuring the public that Chico is still a safe place to live.
Irrespective of whether law enforcement officials were working vigorously on the case behind the scenes—and the fact that they’ve since detained a suspect—going dark for the past two weeks sent a message that the killing wasn’t a priority. Sadly, this is just one example of how Chico, collectively speaking, has blood on its hands.
Almost everyone else in a position of power—from the city manager to the mayor to the majority of the City Council—has kept silent on the issue. Only one of our elected leaders has publicly condemned the killing, despite calls from community members to do so when the council convened for its regular meeting just days after the murder. No offers of condolences to the family of the slain man, Guy Steven VanZant, or well wishes to the unnamed person still hospitalized from gunshot wounds. Nothing.
Astonishingly, during the same council meeting, Laurie Maloney, a member of a newly formed nonprofit, Point of Contact, spoke about “new professional transients coming here every day” to “victimize our community.” Thing is, such a statement is wholly anecdotal and extremely ignorant. Fact is, time after time, the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care Point in Time census reveals that the vast majority of homeless folks in Chico are locals, people who lived here when they fell into homelessness.
Painting with broad strokes on such a complex issue is not only counterproductive but also dangerous. Indeed, Maloney’s is exactly the type of rhetoric that we’ve watched spread and infect our community with ill will toward the unhoused population.
It started years ago with the use of “transient” as a pejorative, and has grown like a cancer into vile name-calling and implications that the population is deserving of violence. We’ve all seen such language go unchallenged online, and now it has been met with violent ends—a pack of juveniles hunting down homeless folks, and one of them, a 16-year-old, allegedly killing a man in cold blood.
While we’re glad to see a suspect in custody, and commend the police department for tracking the juvenile down, this doesn’t absolve the rest of us from what happened. We must acknowledge the role that the greater community played in Mr. VanZant’s death.
The biggest crime in terms of homelessness in Chico is that the city has made living in such circumstances illegal. This is undeniable, as reflected in the matter of Warren v. Chico, wherein the judge presiding in the case said unequivocally that the municipality’s laws related to homelessness run afoul of federal law.
By design, those laws have inflicted untold suffering upon people, an attempt to expunge street dwellers from the city. Yet failing even through those merciless efforts, Chico still hasn’t learned a thing. To this day, rather than putting money into resources that might help—transitional housing, drug treatment, mental health services, and other social services—the city continues its dickering. One has to look no further than the proposed ice rink boondoggle—a thinly veiled plan to drive unhoused people out of downtown—to see where its priorities lie.
The malignancy in our midst is not the people living on the streets, it’s our reaction to them. That’s true whether it’s turning a blind eye to poverty, keeping silent when a man is ruthlessly murdered, or the years-long effort to erase the destitute. We’re all complicit in some way. Until we acknowledge that, nothing is going to change.