University struggles to respond to Camp Fire impact on Chico

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University struggles to respond to Camp Fire impact on Chico

Photo credit: Melissa Joseph

Photo credit: Melissa Joseph

Photo credit: Melissa Joseph

Photo credit: Melissa Joseph

Natalie Hanson

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In the year following the most catastrophic event to ever occur in Butte County, it is disappointing to see Chico State struggle to acknowledge how the fire impacted the town it sits in.

First, how the fire was handled by the university in the first place left many students confused and fearful. No notification was sent out to students until late in the afternoon, when many had already evacuated Paradise. It took days to find out whether students would be required to attend classes the next week, even as the fire burned and residents evacuated for precaution. We were prevented from being on campus the next week due to smoke, yet were required to attend the week after Thanksgiving when the air quality had hardly begun to improve.

The need for mental support for many students overwhelmed our Student Health Center, yet no action was taken and no specialized mental health workers were hired to help handle the impact of the fire.

The power of the university was also demonstrated in the blocking of the Orange Street low-barrier shelter last spring, when President Hutchinson penned a letter stating her opposition to the approval of the shelter.

Hutchinson’s opposition tastelessly demonstrated just how detached Chico State seems to be from the community it sits in. The homeless crisis in Chico was becoming a dire one before the Camp Fire ever occurred. Once winter arrived after the devastation of the fire, many more were left on the streets.

By not acknowledging the severity of the crisis and factors for why, Hutchinson chose to frame the issue as one of safety, categorizing all homeless people in Chico as a threat to safety and a concern for students — as if there wasn’t students also left homeless in the midst of this crisis.

In my conversations with people in Chico who spend time getting to know those who are living on the street or struggling to keep a home, it is clear what Hutchinson’s words did to the community. They feel that referring to the shelter, which would have housed a population that has grown since the Camp Fire, as a “living laboratory” that was proposed too close to campus, helped end any chance for opening this shelter and demonstrated how out of touch the university really is with this city.

Those of us who live in the community and who actually get to know it outside of the bubble of the campus know just what a deep crisis this really is. I wasn’t born here, but I have been going to school here for ten years. I am a Chico High School girl and a Butte College girl and now a Chico State girl. I love this city and I have been extremely blessed that the career I have chosen has allowed me to get to know the people here even better than just going to school here did. It appalls me that the university has given so little lip service, let alone action toward aiding the community.

Butte College has been far more open with the community about the issues it faced, about the students who lost their homes and the faculty who could not return and even major budget issues that have come about due to the drop in enrollment. Chico State continues to avoid the subject as much as possible despite repeated opportunities to address the housing crisis in Chico. The administration, Faculties and Management Services and University Housing all fail to even acknowledge that rent prices may have gone up.

It’s nice to see the university take on the occasional small project like meeting people and publishing their stories and I appreciate people like Jason Halley taking the time out of their busy schedule to meet these people who are still struggling daily.

But the university administration cannot seem to admit how much the city was impacted. Hutchinson and others could not even admit that enrollment may be down until months after the start of fall semester. Instead, the president constantly points to the Master Plan, as if it could be a distraction from talking about everything that has happened to Chico that makes it hard to find housing and jobs, things students really care about. It is clear that the administration’s focus is to continue building things, not to the city they are taking up more and more space in, as well as to make the university look good at all costs. Ironic, because by pretending there isn’t a major crisis in this city, they make themselves look worse month by month.

What would be so bad about admitting just how much of an effect the fire has had on the community and certainly on the college itself? Does the administration fear an even greater drop in enrollment if the truth is known?

If all the university talks about are its new pet projects that are focused on making money and ignoring the financial crisis that Chico is in, how sincere is our administration? How much can we Chico residents trust it? Even if you’re just a student and don’t plan to stay in Chico for long, I believe you should ask these questions and care what the administration does.

As current Chico residents, we need to care about the effects of the fire and we need to at least admit what a toll it has taken on Butte County. We are taking up space in a city that is facing catastrophic, ongoing challenges and we should care if our university continues to pretend that the crisis is something going on far away. If #WeAreChico is a motto Chico State wants to live up to, it needs to start admitting that this is still a crisis and then start doing something about it.

Natalie Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or @nhaons_reports on Twitter.

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