The Orion

Sidewalk deadlock

Jessie Severin

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Photograph by Dan Reidel  Louie Joliat sits outside Collier Hardware on Friday. Originally from Boston, Joliat calls himself a traveler, not a transient or homeless. After five years on the road, Joliat said he has seen a crackdown on the homeless population in many cities throughout Northern California, not just in Chico. “It’s affecting me more than I’m affecting anyone else,” he said. Joliat was arrested for an unpaid camping ticket after coming to Chico in mid-October.

Photograph by Dan Reidel
Louie Joliat sits outside Collier Hardware on Friday. Originally from Boston, Joliat calls himself a traveler, not a transient or homeless. After five years on the road, Joliat said he has seen a crackdown on the homeless population in many cities throughout Northern California, not just in Chico. “It’s affecting me more than I’m affecting anyone else,” he said. Joliat was arrested for an unpaid camping ticket after coming to Chico in mid-October.

Members of the Chico community are calling for swift action to clean up vagrancy downtown just one week before the Chico City Council is scheduled to review a proposal that would give police the authority to clear out downtown sidewalks.

While the proposal makes its way to the council chambers, a newly formed union of downtown businesses is on the verge of commissioning a private security force charged with the task of moving the homeless away from storefronts.

City Council

Hundreds of residents gathered at a special study session in the council chambers on Oct. 22 to generate ideas regarding the problems with transients and crime downtown. Attendants were split into two groups to brainstorm solutions. Both groups decided the city’s first priority should be to fully fund and staff the police department.

A sit-lie ordinance, now being called a civil sidewalks ordinance, was also high on the list for most of the attendees. The law would prohibit people from sitting or lying on sidewalks downtown.

The City Council rejected a previous sit-lie ordinance in August. The council members who voted against it said it was an ineffective proposal because the city would be fining people who have no resources to pay the fines.

These types of laws have failed in other California communities and have not done anything to address vagrancy problems in the merchant districts, said Randall Stone, a City Council member. He said he could only support the ordinance if stronger enforcement mechanisms were provided.

“Otherwise, we are choosing to vote on something, or create a new ordinance that we know will not work, and not only that, will actually cost us more money,” Stone said. “I’m not willing to do that.”

Chico needs better enforcement of the laws that are already on the books, Stone said.

“It’s already illegal to have dogs defecating on the street,” Stone said. “It’s already illegal to block the sidewalk. A sit-lie ordinance does nothing about one place where we do have a problem  — down in the southwest corner of the downtown plaza park.”

At the study session, Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen supported the civil sidewalks law. Despite the benevolent efforts of community volunteers, services aren’t going to get us where we need to go, he said.

“That’s definitely not the panacea,” Sorensen said. “That’s not going to solve our issues by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it is something to send the message that this behavior is no longer acceptable.”

The city can no longer accept people occupying and taking control over public spaces, he said.

“We’re not just talking about the homeless,” Sorensen said. “We’re talking about vagrancy. In some cases it’s a lifestyle choice and we need to roll up the welcome mat and say ‘not here.’”

The council directed Lori Barker, the city attorney, to prepare a revised civil sidewalks ordinance for the council’s review.

There are a couple of changes being added to the sit-lie ordinance, Barker said. The previous law required police to issue vagrants a warning before citing them, a provision which is being removed. Additionally, Barker is considering expanding the ordinance beyond downtown.

“One of the options would be essentially sidewalks adjacent to all commercial properties in the city,” Barker said. “So it could be citywide — not all sidewalks in the city, but those in front of merchants.”

Any alternative enforcement mechanisms, such as community service or issuing warrants rather than fines, are long-term options that would not be part of the current revision, Barker said.

The updated civil sidewalks ordinance will go to the City Council for consideration Nov. 5.

R-Town Downtown

The R-Town Downtown Coalition, which plans to clean up downtown Chico by hiring armed private security to patrol businesses and rid the area of “anti-social” behavior, has been met with mixed reactions by community leaders.

Supporters of the coalition, which include business and property owners, volunteers and the Chico Police Department, share the goal of making downtown a safe and friendly place.

Alan Tochterman, a local attorney and member of the coalition, emphasized that the homeless in downtown are a diverse population. Some are harmless and others are committing illegal acts that make visitors uncomfortable.

“We want to have private security for the next couple months to get us through the winter, then we will evaluate whether we want to keep doing it or do something else,” Tochterman said.

While the security guards will only be allowed to patrol private property, business owners like Tochterman hope that their presence will deter illegal behavior.

Some council members are skeptical of the organization’s plan but hope that some good can be done for the downtown area.

“I do have some concerns,” said Ann Schwab, a councilmember and a downtown business owner. “They have every right to have a security company inside their own property, but I’m very concerned if they would be patrolling the streets, sidewalks, public places, because they really have no authority to do that.

“What is the image of Chico of having private armed guards?”

Having armed private security has worked in other towns and cleaned up their downtown areas, such as San Jose, Stone said.

R-Town’s proposal requested parking meter money to fund a study so they could create a property-based business improvement district, a collaboration between the public and private sectors to organize commercial improvement.

The Jesus Center, which serves the homeless and those in need of food, has joined the coalition with some uneasiness, said Bill Such, director of the center. The center is under pressure to join because it takes about $70,000 a month to run and many of those donations come from downtown businesses.

The coalition offered the Jesus Center up to $10,000 to employ homeless people to clean up downtown, he said.

“I’m aligned with it and I’m nervous about it,” Such said. “I want people to see that the Jesus Center is the solution, not part of the problem. From my point of view I’m trying to reach out to them.”

But the coalition is not currently pursuing employing homeless people through the center, Tochterman said.

“We’re not giving money to the Jesus Center at this point,” he said.

If the coalition doesn’t offer the money to employ people or if the armed guards cause problems, Such said he will “immediately and publicly back out.”

The city is making its own efforts to deter the homeless from congregating downtown. Last week, two police officers were assigned to the downtown area. The Chico Ambassadors, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the downtown area, were also patrolling, greeting people, picking up litter and reaching out to people who needed help. Both Schwab and Stone say that these efforts are a step in the right direction.

“I’m almost hopeful that the property owners see a vast improvement that we’ve been making just in the last couple of days,” Schwab said. “If they see that continue into next week, they may say ‘maybe we don’t need to do this.’ Maybe we can put our efforts more into marketing, development and let the community know that downtown is a safe place to shop.”

 

Bill Hall contributed to this report.

The Orion can be reached at [email protected] or @theorion_news on Twitter.

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Sidewalk deadlock