By: Natalie Hanson
January 3, 2021 —
CHICO, CA — It has been several weeks since Chico’s City Council and city staff approved harsher punishments for camping in parks. As the new year begins, many people unhoused and camping in Bidwell Park are waiting to find out when they will be moved and where they can still go, while under a stay-at-home order.
At the entrance to Bidwell Park, a large group of campers have moved to a visible location between Annie’s Glen and lower Bidwell Park, off Pine Street. Some find themselves now in full view of cars passing by, where they are sometimes shouted or honked at by vehicles passing.
Those who have camped for longer periods say they are used to the treatment, but have been moved by police more in 2020 than for several previous years. Now, they have grown confused by different warnings from city staff and police about when to leave the park, with all shelters currently closed during the pandemic.
Hanging on in plain sight
Lusan Whitaker, who moved to the camp after having camped by Caper Acres, said she was told by the Chico Police Department Target Team on Dec. 17 that all campers had until the end of the following Monday, Dec. 21, to vacate the area and leave behind any trash to be confiscated.
Bobby Warren, who camps near her, said at the time the police said he and other campers had 72 hours. So he and nearby camper Bryce Hodge packed their property.
”Everyone was in a mad panic and trying to find a place to go,” he said.
But then, ”We decided, we’re just going to ride it out and see what happens.”
”They’re the ones that told us to come here in the first place … kicking us out of all the places we’ve been,” he said, adding that he has been moved from Depot Park and Little Chico Creek before.
And the following Monday, the forced move didn’t happen, as campers said Sgt. Cesar Sandoval returned and said he “couldn’t tell us to move at the time,” Whitaker said. Instead, several officers and park rangers came to ask people to collect their trash, offering bus tickets if needed (a privately funded Homeless Evaluation Liaison Program, for paying transportation costs for homeless individuals to relocate to a support group in another area, which the team has offered in the past).
Whitaker said this is not an option for her — “I don’t want to move to the middle of nowhere.”
But, “It’s not that I’d rather be like this,” she admitted. She has been homeless with her husband for eight years after losing her Paradise home to foreclosure.
Whitaker said she and many others in the encampment area were moved months ago away from waterways, and believe it is because the current encampment at the park’s entrance is not part of either lower Bidwell Park or Annie’s Glen.
”They tell us to move, but they don’t tell us where to go,” she said.
She and David Mclain are concerned about other campers’ trash accumulating and the state of the creek nearby. Mclain said the waterway has become a bigger human waste issue — “it is disgusting.” He added the park bathrooms are locked and portable restrooms are the only option in the area.
“The sergeant said we’re not supposed to be here, but they’re not bringing anybody out because there’s nowhere to put them,” Mclain said. ”They originally said to come here a couple of months ago.” He added police officers have told him and other campers to keep their camping areas clean.
Mclain has a part time job and just became homeless two months ago. While he said he appreciates the attitude of the Target Team and park rangers and how they work with others who are homeless, he said it feels clear they aren’t sure what the next direction is beyond giving citations.
”I’m embarrassed enough to be out here, I don’t need that too,” he said.
He also claimed there are houses nearby the visible camp off Pine Street that have fired pellets at their tents before.
”When you start using pellets you’re seriously trying to hurt someone.”
Even when the Torres Shelter was open, Warren said he could not go as he did not want to be crowded into a place with “very unclean people.” He is also suffering from a third battle with bladder cancer, and often needs medical attention.
“If they give us 48 hours, am I going to be able to get everything in 48 hours?”
So he and Hodge live out of a suitcase, “packed and ready to go” without a plan for where that will be. Warren said he would be glad to see any sanctioned campground appear at this point, no matter how far away from midtown, even in the proposed site at the Chico Airport.
But Hodge, homeless about two years, was recently diagnosed with heart failure, and said he can’t see traveling to a campsite located on the edge of the city after being in and out of the hospital for two months.
As people wait to see if and when they will be told to move, some abandoned property and refuse has continued to accumulate. Community outreach volunteer Addison Winslow, who often keeps in contact with people camping in the area, pointed out a large area of garbage and an abandoned tent. He said some people did leave the area in a panic after being given notice, and left the trash to be picked up by the city.
“They told me they were leaving because people were frenetic,” he said. But their items like others have not yet been confiscated.
Gina Marmol has been homeless on and off at various points and lost her Paradise apartment after it was sold in December 2019. She said after seven weeks in the park, living in encampments means monitoring others living nearby (including for symptoms of illness like COVID-19), and sharing toiletries and money if needed.
”We do share everything, we have to,” Marmol said. But she is especially concerned about finding a new place to live under the new ordinance. She said she was attacked Tuesday night and has been robbed several times in one week in December.
“A woman on the streets, you know, that’s why I have my big dog,” she said.
She and Mclain are working on plans to leave the area. Mclain said he has contacted friends in Magalia where he can stay in a trailer.
Marmol has been struggling to get a bus ticket to Boise, Idaho to see family, and lost one ticket in a mix-up with Greyhound several weeks prior. She is determined to work with another friend camping in the park to earn money recycling and purchase another bus or train ticket.
”I’m gonna believe in God, that He’s going to provide,” Marmol said.
A new enforcement plan
While the Target Team was not available to comment on the plan for enforcement in Bidwell Park, Chico Police’s Commander Brian Miller said at this time, the city hasn’t yet decided when more formal enforcement will take place.
The past few weeks have been for giving the Target Team time to give people verbal notice about being in violation of the ordinance.
”We wouldn’t want to take action without giving the message,” Miller said. “Going for voluntary compliance is always the best way to do it.”
Soon, as required by law, officers will give people written notices to remove encampments and property along with following other rules. Once those notices expire, the city can then legally come in and start to take and move property, he said.
Campers will not be told anywhere specific to go, Miller said. And once people are told to leave the park, camping elsewhere could be in violation of other ordinances, ”depending on where they go and what time of day it is.” The sit and lie ordinance still stands for trespassing downtown, as well as any private property.
While not sure if there will be an additional trash collection effort made in the park, Miller said if people’s property is left behind, ”then we can call on city resources to do that (collection).”
Miller also said he does not know of any direction to people to camp near the entrance of the park, saying that area is still considered part of Bidwell Park.
“It was my understanding … people were originally asked to move to that region to get at least 50 feet away from the waterways,” he said.
When enforcement begins in earnest, ”We are starting with areas that have gotten out of control and were never suitable for camping at all,” Miller said. ”We repeatedly get calls about One-Mile Recreation Area, and the City Plaza. A lot of people in the community want those areas cleared out.”
And Miller added the city is waiting on service providers to provide options for those currently unhoused.
”We are going to do our jobs, as we count on other entities to do their job.”
This article courtesy of Enterprise-Record
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