California’s homeless population is growing. Some estimates put the latest number at 130,000. Chico’s homeless population continues to grow as well.
While there are many local organizations that serve the homeless community in different ways, some call those services “inadequate,” while others say they would just prefer to live on the streets.
Patrick Newman launched “Chico Friends of the Street” in 2016. He and his crew prepare and serve food to homeless people on a regular basis. They also hand out toiletries. The number of people who show up to those feedings has grown over the years. Last Sunday, an estimated 70 to 80 people filled the downtown city plaza for hot soup, buttered bread, clothing, and toiletries. Says Newman, “We've had a history here the last four years, especially of an increasingly difficult environment for people to live on the streets.”
Therein lies the crux of the issue; more people than ever calling Chico’s streets home. Local business owners, especially those who run shops downtown, have long-complained of homeless people sleeping and defecating in their storefronts, harassing them when asked to move, and leaving trash behind.
Shubert’s Ice Cream, one block away from the city plaza, has been a family-owned and operated business since 1951. Kacey Reynolds runs the business, and she’s also running for Chico City Council, hoping to replace outgoing Vice Mayor Reanette Filmer.
Reynolds says many business owners won’t speak out about the issue, because they fear a backlash. She says, “We're the taxpayers. We come to work every day, and we're what keeps the community going, by tax revenue and things that we need to support our town.”
Mayor Sean Morgan says the public feedings are a problem, and he says city leaders are prepared to take action. He says, “Someone again, some well-intended person…has come along and they're making the problem worse. They're working against the community. How do we keep things going in the right direction?”
He says he knows there will be a backlash against city leaders taking a stand. Says Morgan, “’Oh you're outlawing homelessness. Oh you rotten person. Oh, we're just trying to feed people. Oh, we're just trying to do the right thing.’ They don't have the moral high ground. They're hurting people by empowering them. No one is every going to get better as long as they continue to get handouts and continue to get handouts and continue to get handouts.”
Newman maintains that people should be free to live on the streets, and he and his team don’t want to see anyone go hungry. He says, “The notion that there's services available for these people to go to, housing…even if that was true, a person should still have the freedom to choose.”
He also blames California’s housing crisis, and sky-rocketing rent on the problem. Says Newman, “Instead of focusing on whatever the solutions might be, I focus on the fact that 700 people are going to be on the streets every day, how are we going to treat them.”
Morgan says he will sit down with the City Manager, City Attorney, and Chief of Police to see what options are available, including a “no public feedings” ordinance, though he says enforcing that could be a challenge.