Love ‘Em Or Make ‘Em Leave?

The increasing size of the homeless population downtown has become a hot button
political issue for Chico, and one that divides the candidates for the City Council election
tomorrow. At the League of Women Voters forum on October 15th, I saw two very
distinct points of view represented.

The first was best illustrated by the comments of Sean Morgan, perhaps the most plain
spoken conservative of the group advocating for new laws against objectionable
behavior. In response to a question about what the city should do about the homeless
“situation” downtown, Mr. Morgan replied, “My take is to give the police department the
tools it needs — the misdemeanor vagrancy and panhandling laws they’ve asked the
council for before and been denied. We have terrific resources for the disabled — the
Jesus Center, the Torres Center, that help people get traction as long as they’re making
progress, and they do a great job. To the others, I would like Chico to send a clear
message, if you want to come to Chico to learn, add value and make progress, you’re
welcome here, but if you’re here solely to party or bask endlessly in the generosity of
our nonprofits, we ask that you move along.” The audience reacted with hushed gasps of shock on one side and beaming support on the other.

The other side was best illustrated by Tami Ritter, who said “it’s going to take a
collaborative approach, both with Butte County Department of Behavioral Health as well
as a variety of other service organizations, including the city. What I continue to hear is
that we are legislating too much, and we are taking away individual freedoms, yet I
continue to hear about how we need more legislation to make it illegal to panhandle or
illegal to sit on the sidewalk or to sleep on the sidewalk. So I don’t think this is an issue
or a problem that we can legislate away. I think this is something that is going to take a
well thought-out approach.”

The consensus among the conservatives running for City Council seems to be that the
presence of homeless people downtown hurts business traffic so we need new laws to
criminalize their unwanted behavior. The consensus among the liberals seems to be
that this is a complicated problem that cannot be legislated away, but requires a
collaborative, multi-dimensional effort to get at the root problems.

I felt that what was missing from the debate was any indication that any of these
candidates (with the exception of Tami Ritter, the former director of the Torres Shelter)
has spent any time in contact with the subject of their speculation. How can any politician
make such an important decision regarding an already marginalized segment of our
community without having talked to them? Just as importantly, how can I, as a citizen,
know who to support unless I put my own assumptions to the test? So, over several
days, I spent time talking with homeless people in downtown Chico in an effort to
understand this misunderstood and marginalized part of our community.
Toby Schindelbeck, another conservative candidate for City Council, correctly identified
four segments of the homeless population that have different characteristics and
different needs. At the candidate forum, he said “you have the homeless that are down
on their luck from the economy, and they’re homeless because of that. You have the
people that are mentally ill or vets, and both those categories need our help. And then
we have the street life enthusiasts, who choose the lifestyle. They travel on the
homeless highway from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco, and now Chico is on that
stop. And then we have the AB109 early releases who are the most dangerous out of all
of them.”

But, when the average citizen or politician in Chico talks about the “homeless problem
downtown,” they are most likely talking about the travelers — the young travelers with
backpacks, often accompanied by dogs, sitting in front of businesses with provocative
signs asking passersby for “spare change.” They are the most visible and noisy of the
homeless that the average citizen in Chico comes in contact with, and therefore the
most politically visible.

The two I spoke to in front of Jamba Juice, Charlie and Red, called themselves “dirty
kids.” Red had tattoos on his calves: “Clean kids get sick and die. Dirty kids get sick and
live.” They painted a romantic picture of life on the road, a carefree life of no
responsibilities, near constant partying, traveling all over the country, living outdoors.
Charlie had face tattoos and a scar on her chest from a heart surgery. She had a dog
that was “born in the snow — I hitched 250 miles to save her, and now she’s mine.” She
had an ebullient, dynamic, joyful personality and a charming smile. Born near Seattle,
she has been homeless since age 14, on the road for 12 years off and on. Of all the
traveling kids I spoke to, she had the most romanticized notion of life on the road. She
dropped out of school early, and briefly went back to try to finish high school, but when
her grades were failing and she told her high school counselor all she wanted to do was
travel, he told her to just drop out and do it. So she did. She loves the freedom, but also
looks back with almost wistful memory of her previous life — her room filled with old
Victorian things, a 1920s top hat, beautiful tapestries and little gold trinkets, not to
mention a comfortable bed. Whenever she gets a chance to cook in a kitchen, as she
did recently when she cooked biscuits and gravy for a group of traveling kids, she has
“secret housewife fantasies. I clean the kitchen and cook for everyone and I just love
the smell of the kitchen.”

Red is a bit older, from Pennsylvania, and has been on the road for twelve years. He
has red hair and scruffy mutton chops and a broken front tooth. He is polite, respectful,
and kind. He did not become homeless by choice, but began associating with the
traveling kids, picking up tips on where to get food and how to make ends meet. He said
“some of those kids give the rest of us a bad name, but aside from being a little noisy at
night when we’re hanging out partying, we don’t cause any trouble.” He doesn’t want to
go back to a traditional life “paying rent for something I’ll never own” and rarely stays in
one place for more than a few weeks. He said “about 15-20 of us sleep in the plaza at
night. They’re all a lot like us. We’ve even seen a lot of them in other towns. It’s funny —
it’s a small world, and we’ll see the same people again and again all over.” Asked where
they’ve been recently, he mentions “Seattle, Portland, Bend, Klamath Falls, San
Francisco, but Chico is an excellent place to winter.” As we were talking, a friend came
by to share a portion of a breakfast burrito from a nearby trashcan. “People throw away
all kinds of good food, it’s crazy.”

Digger is not a traveling kid — at least not anymore. I found him sitting in front of an
empty storefront on Broadway. He was born in the area, became homeless at 14, and
traveled for many years but came back to handle a legal problem and decided to stay.
He said “the traveling kids ruin it for everyone. Everyone blames the ‘homeless’ but
we’re all different.” He talked about trying to get a job and becoming bewildered
because he doesn’t know his Social Security number and the unemployment office
wanted it, as well as a passport, which he deemed ridiculous. He also pointed out a
common, and very basic, problem for homeless individuals — handling the security of
your possessions. He complained about how “punk teenagers and middle schoolers will
come in to your camp and scatter all your stuff or steal from you.” He said it’s impossible
to go to the shelters without a partner without being subject to theft. I heard this from
virtually everyone I spoke to, and it is yet another impediment to getting anything done
— seeking services at government offices or shelters, finding work — how do you keep
your important, if few, belongings safe? Digger’s immediate environment was clean and
orderly. He had a small backpack and a small suitcase with wheels with everything
neatly contained. “If you don’t have everything tidy and ready to go when the police
arrive, there will be trouble.” He showed disdain for those that make a mess in front of
businesses and said he will “clean up messes left by the traveling kids to avoid any
trouble.” Every few days or so, “I save up enough for a room somewhere to get a
shower and a good night’s sleep.” As for why we are seeing an increase in travelers,
Digger says that “towns all over are pushing people out, so people come here thinking
it’s a party town, trash the place and move on.”

Bob is a Korean War veteran who receives benefits through Veterans Affairs, but not
enough to afford a place to live. He supplements his income by “doing this,” he said as
he waved his arms indicating his wheelchair and cardboard sign. He was dressed
cleanly, and had just been to the hospital, evidenced by the admission band still on his
wrist. The night before, he was near a restaurant when the owner came out with a
whole pizza, and another passerby offered him a burrito. It was too much food for him
alone, so he shared it with “the asshole kids over by the 7-11.” He went back to the
restaurant and slept there overnight, waking up “showered with $1 bills. They were
everywhere, I guess people felt really generous last night.” Bob is aware of local politics
and quite critical of the city. “They need to come down here and give people jobs, make
new jobs.”

John has been on the streets of Chico for 28 years. His face is weathered, and he has a
speech condition that make it difficult for him to speak clearly. He is a survivor of a case
of colon cancer that required a permanent colostomy. His meager possessions are
found beside him in a utility cart topped by a sign saying “canser [sic] survivor, disabled,
need help”. Spend one minute with John and you’ll realize he’s the real deal: a disabled
man with a crippling medical condition and no resources. He has no bank account. He’s
on the street asking for compassion and help. Most of the time, he is ignored by
passersby that find his presence to be an uncomfortable reminder of the underlying
cruelty of nature. The rest of the time, he settles for pity and a few dollars or some
leftovers. When asked what he thinks of the proposal by conservative candidates for
city council to enact anti-panhandling and anti-vagrancy ordinances, he offers a cogent
rebuttal: “They need to live for a year on the street with no money, no bank account,
nobody backing them up, and then see what kind of laws they should pass. They have a
way of making themselves better than poor people. They need to start thinking about
other people and not just themselves.”

There are almost 2,000 homeless individuals in Butte County, and there is no single
reason behind it. This is a diverse group of people, a microcosm of society as a whole.
There are families that lose their source of income and are kicked out of their house.
There are kids that come from abusive or neglectful families, so they run away and
strike out on their own, never to return. There are kids that reject mainstream society
and develop romantic notions of life on the road and soon find themselves so far
removed that it is unthinkable to return. There are war veterans of all ages that can’t
make ends meet or have difficulty assimilating back into society after their experiences
on the battlefield. There are the mentally ill — also a broad category with many
distinctions — just trying to survive day by day, but unable to hold down a job and so
find themselves on the street.

The criminalization of sitting on the sidewalk, asking for help, or sleeping in public is a
far too simplistic response. We need leaders with a broad vision that can ask the right
questions and engage the entire community, not just law enforcement, in the solution. If
we take the easy way out just because we don’t like the dirty kids, we’ll make life
impossible for people like John or Bob that are in legitimate need and rely on our
compassion for their survival. Passing a law to sweep people out of sight so our skills of
compassion atrophy even further is no solution at all.

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Matt Olson is a systems thinker, hacker, and social entrepreneur proud to call Chico home. He's a software engineer with a particular interest in using social business to address seemingly intractable problems. When it's time to relax, you'll find him on the roads and trails of the North State on his Homer Hilsen, playing bocce, or building robots with his boys.