Chico dehumanizes homeless population

Zachary Phillips

In “Purgatorio,” part one of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy,” the fourth level of purgatory is reserved for those afflicted by sloth — a lack of action in response to others’ needs.

The men and women occupying this terrace are eternally tasked with constant movement, damned to never again have a moment of rest.

Return to this worldly plane with Alighieri’s biting, albeit extreme, commentary in mind. Envision downtown Chico, which this college town has found the center of a growing controversy in regards to the “homeless problem.”

The city has recently made several attempts to rectify this problem, including:

1. Providing armed guards to police the streets after dark. One time a man asked me to give him some spare change for a sandwich. Luckily, a guard with a stun gun, baton, pepper spray and gun intervened. I celebrated by treating myself to a sandwich.

2. Passing a Sit and Lie ordinance that outlaws loitering in any sort of prostrate or downcast manner adjacent to downtown businesses. No citations have been issued so far, possibly on the grounds that the Chico Police Department has too great a sense of compassion.

3. Demanding that organizations like Food Not Bombs and Orchard Church move their outreach programs to the Chico Municipal Center, rather than the City Plaza. Not sure where the municipal center is? Exactly.

For those who are unfamiliar with Food Not Bombs and Orchard Church, these organizations devote one day each weekend to feeding the homeless.

Narrowly avoiding having their meals disbanded altogether, they have instead been moved out of the public eye, where their efforts at dignifying Chico’s homeless population won’t offend onlookers’ eyes.

As a town centered around its college campus, Chico is home to one of the most privileged groups of people nationwide: the college student.

With the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree and more, the American college student finds his or her self within a system that cuts several rungs off of the ladder to success that everyone is so quick to climb.

Within an arm’s reach of these students is Chico’s homeless population. These individuals find themselves within a different system entirely: poverty.

Poverty is not simply a line that one stands above or below, or a lack of sufficient food or clothing. Poverty is poor health and education, poor sanitation, a lack of physical security, a lack of voice and a lack of opportunity to better one’s life.

In the case of those men and women who used to break bread with Orchard Church and Food Not Bombs on weekends, it means a lack of humanity.

Maybe it was the decline in business. Maybe it was the feelings of insecurity and danger. Maybe it was the conviction that strikes the soul when one passes by someone whose possessions are contained within a trash bag, forcing one to ponder why life’s proverbial sunbeam shines on some but not others.

Whatever the reason, Chico decided that while they still deserve to eat a hot meal, its homeless men and women don’t deserve to share the same space as the rest of its citizens.

This dehumanizing act may seem extreme, but it is no more so than the derogatory language used against the homeless each day.

We privileged students tend to look upon these individuals and assume that their destitution is a result of their own efforts.

“They chose a life of transience. They aren’t working for change. They brought this upon themselves.”

These are often falsities, fluttering through the minds of we who are privileged enough to believe them. We rarely stop to think about each individual life.

Why not ask, “Why is this person here? Where is their family? What have they lost?”

Zachary Phillips can be reached at [email protected] [email protected] on Twitter.