Posted by Jack
TO THE PEOPLE OF CHICO
One way to look at the years prior to November 3 is as a community in an identity crisis. While some of us understood we were headed in the wrong direction, away from safety, cleanliness and beauty, there were others who believed in a different vision. In the past, Chico stood in sharp contrast to the major metropolitan centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles; more like Norman Rockwell than Mad Max.
Others lobbied for and pursued a different vision, based on permissive Progressive policies that have resulted in a growth of the street population, drugs, crime, environmental damage to our parks and waterways, needle litter, etc. All of this served to reduce access to our unique heritage; to a quality of life that drew people to stay here for life, and come back in search of what they could not find in the more Progressively run, large population centers.
We found ourselves in a situation where many of us, and perhaps most of us, believed we were destroying what we loved most about Chico, and what we sought most from whatever we include in our own concept of “quality of life.” I personally felt, soon after my return to Chico after 40 years away, that it was less than I remember, and it was slipping farther away every day.
I soon became one of the many people who were trying to work together to try to make a difference. We clean up the messes that were everywhere; parks, bridges, downtown, business establishments. We lobbied and tried to collaborate with others. We struggled, joined groups, then splintered off into many different groups and networks, but most understood all along that we were striving for the same outcomes. Once we established our own lanes, resolved disagreements on the margins, something amazing happened.
We got organized. We became effective advocates for our vision and gathered like-minded people around us, who also pitched in and did what they could. We began speaking as a community for something we deeply desired, a community that was better than what Chico had become.
We were naive. We believed if we could just explain things well enough, show up in numbers, make rational arguments, that we could get the City Council to serve our needs. Then the election of 2018 happened, followed closely by the Camp Fire, and then sometime later, the Covid epidemic. Through all of this, we learned something disturbing and freighting about the people who had assumed power over our lives. We faced tremendous opposition and growing momentum by those in power. We were surprised at the lengths to which they would go to impose their vision for Chico on the rest of us.
They did not want what we wanted. Not only that, but they were not about to be fair about it. We learned they were perfectly willing to use their power against us, against our efforts to improve the quality of life-based on their obligation, we thought, to provide for the general welfare of their constituents, the entire population of Chico. What we learned is that their intention was to use us only to fulfill their vision of some kind of utopian future where government saves everyone from themselves. We felt ignored, disrespected, and powerless, and we were.
Instead of giving up, leaving town, or leaving the state, as so many others have done, we got together and figured out how to fight for what we wanted. I’m not going to try to make a list of who’s who. You know who they are and you know who you are. Look around. This is your community. We all have good reason to feel proud of what we’ve accomplished.
But this is just the beginning. We have discovered a new world, and it needs to be returned to something we can proudly call “civil society”, where laws are enforced, safety is evident in our daily lives, the environment is returned to a pristine state and kept in that condition, our streets and public spaces are clean, inviting and functional, and children are having the kind of experiences growing up that only a place like Chico can provide. With that foundation of basic and unique quality of life, who would not want to live here, work here, establish a business here? Most everyone would, but we can’t satisfy the needs and desires of everyone. We need to start by taking care of the people who are here, and perhaps other communities will follow our lead and improve their own communities rather than trying to flock to Chico. But we want to be the kind of place that people want to live in.
So my message is this. We have captured the hill, but we have not won the battle, and the war is going to be long and difficult. If there is such a thing as a “new normal”, it will come from the realization that we got ourselves into this mess, not because of a failing of others, but a failing of ourselves.
While we went to work, cared for our family, parented our children, and enjoyed all that Chico has to offer, and it is considerable, we left the duties of citizenship to others, and they gladly and eagerly took it over, and used it as they desired. Before we realized what was happening, we had allowed a wall to be built between what we consider basic common sense, and the status-quo dysfunction of our current institutions of government. In that regard, Chico is a microcosm of the drama playing out in Sacramento and the national stage.
Proudly, Chico seems to be leading the way out of the morass. Fortunately, our elections were fair, we trust our Registrar of Voters, and we are not questioning the process or outcomes. That’s one for us. We now have the ability to follow a different path into the future than the one that seemed inevitable just a short few months ago. Now we have different expectations, very high expectations for can and should happen from here. Many of us, myself included, feel hopeful for the first time in a long time, and we have good reasons to feel that way. Let’s see what we can do with this opportunity.
Some things will be easier, like banning needles once and for all. Some things will be harder and will take more time, like returning our parks and waterways to something you want your children to inherit. But I believe that from December 1 forward, we will see a steady march towards more safety, a cleaner and healthier natural environment, and if that was not enough, a growing sense of beauty in all its forms.
We will face opposition, serious opposition. We are prepared for that, I think. But, here is the catch. If we as a community of citizens, fail to remain unified in our goals, become complacent in our actions, or lack the vigilance needed to hold the ground we gain, we will slip back into chaos. No more chaos! We’re full up around here.
TO THE NEW CITY COUNCIL
Congratulations to Andrew Coolidge, Kami Denlay, Sean Morgan, and Deepika Tandon, who join Kasey Reynolds in a common struggle to change the direction of Chico’s future. Expectations are high, and knowing each of you as I do, I know you are up to the challenge. We have 4 years. Act swiftly, but pace yourselves. In the first 100 days, we can tackle the low hanging fruit and set a few things on the right course. But the job you have taken is for the long haul. What you do together in the next four years will set the course for Chico for years far beyond your initial terms.
No matter how you organized this task and how you prioritize your goals, I know that every action will pass the test of improving safety, making our environment cleaner and healthier, and adding beauty and prosperity to our community as a whole. I am confident that your efforts will be on behalf of the entire population of the 120,000 souls, more or less, who lay their heads down in Chico. To do this, you must constrain your ambitions to only those things that Chico City Government can do, and leave the rest to those who have the responsibilities do the rest. We are not a social services agency, we are a social order agency. We establish community standards and enforce them against anyone who can’t or won’t respect them.
Harmful or destructive conduct must be first stopped, for the protection and safety of the citizens in your charge, before any next steps are considered. Environments must first be protected against ongoing abuse before any subsequent actions to return them to their proper pristine state. Once the abuse is curtailed, you will have willing helpers to assist you to clean it up for the final time.
In order for this community to thrive, we need a healthy local economy, which requires the types of industries we wish to attract, a skilled and willing workforce, a place for them to live, raise families, and enjoy the highest quality of life we can imagine. We need a fully staffed police force and an adequate fire department. We need decent roads, beautiful buildings, and an infrastructure that works. We need each other, so providing places and opportunities for us to gather and meet and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from sharing common values and goals, and working side-by-side to achieve them.
In short, we need our Chico back. I know you will work hard every day to make that happen. To Scott Huber and Alex Brown, I say this: You could have tried harder to work with us. You didn’t, and in fact, worked against us. That was unnecessary, but that’s what you did, with the encouragement of your three colleagues who are no longer there. You will now experience what it’s like to struggle for relevancy. You reap what you sow, just like everyone else. You sowed divisiveness and tribalism and used your power to try to control the facts that you wanted everyone to believe. That was a mistake. Mistakes have consequences.
TO THE HOMELESS INDUSTRY
Fundamentally, you have failed us. You have had ample time and adequate resources to make a real difference, but the changes you have encouraged has made things worse, not better. I understand, perhaps more than many, that you don’t see it that way.
I think you believe you have used all the resources you could get your hands on to provide the services you think will help the people you believe you can help. You frame the “problem” as the gap between the flood of indigents that you call your “clients”, and the inadequate resources you can garner to build out the institutions of care you believe will satisfy this ever-growing need.
You believe, and I partially agree with you on this, that the “rules of the game” are established by the initiatives coming out of Sacramento, as your very existence is tightly integrated with the policies, programs and grants originating from our state institutions, upon which you strongly depend. Federal agencies also have a role in this. To hear you tell it, you are doing the best with what you have, and if you only had more, and you don’t really care where it comes from, you can “end homelessness in 10 years,” as you claimed 6 years ago. What you did not do is listen to those who tried to talk with you about what you believe.
We do not agree on the “problem.” For you, the problem is encouraging those you encounter on the streets to come to your attractive, supportive facilities and return to something called “housing”. Some do come, and you labor under the illusion that if you just could just never run out of resources, you could serve the needs of everyone you encounter.
The reality is that many more refuse your services than accept them. There is a reason for that. That reason is closely tied to the reason they qualify as your “clients” in the first place. For those you happily externalize to the rest of the community, then criticize us when we try to cope with the devastating impacts of their anti-social conduct. On the more radical fringe of the industry, those efforts are met with radical ideas for reform of our justice systems, as if there is something wrong with actually enforcing the laws on the books, there for the protection and general welfare of those who do live within established community standards.
Before November of 2018, at least some of the leaders of your industry were willing to engage in conversations along these lines, but after that election, you no longer had any use for anyone that thought you might be barking up the wrong tree. You found ample support for your visions for Chico as a homeless service center from the newest super-majority councilmembers. Many people were surprised and dismayed by the pace and scope of your ambitions, and the dramatic show of support you received from the Council in return.
Well, as the saying goes, “there is a new sheriff in town.” I hope you are getting ready to change along with the rest of us. Once the parks are no longer allowed to be homesteaded by your “clients”, you are going to be expected to do the best you can with the refugees from our public spaces.
When that happens, you will argue that we “can’t” and then you will argue that we “shouldn’t”. But we should and we can and we will. We will recapture our parks and public lands. There will be a migration. They will be coming to you. I hope you are prepared. You have certainly had every opportunity to do so.
TO THE HOMELESS
I know many of you. I have spoken personally to hundreds of you. I have known more than one of you who died living the way you do. Life is hard. It is harder when you have experienced whatever you have, done what you have done, become who you are now. I get it. Reality bites.
Many of you, for whatever reasons, are addicted to drugs; heroin, meth, pot, and stuff I don’t know how to name. You started down that path long ago, and it has led you to Chico, living under bridges, sleeping in the bushes, and pitching tents in the parks. Some of you are ill, both mentally and physically, and you are languishing on the streets with no one to take on your condition and help you cope.
Some of you have abandoned hope. Some of you have abandoned the morals you once might have held. Your world has grown very small, and your time is consumed with the basics of life; eating, sleeping, digestion, and capturing enough to do what you do every day. However you get what you get, you tell yourself, is justified by your condition, and you can’t help it. You have to bend the rules a bit, maybe a lot, to make ends meet. Your options are very limited.
Then there are those of you who know a good thing when you see it, and given what you want out of this life, you have found Chico a convenient place to hang; people feel sorry for you and you take full advantage of that, even maybe telling them off when they don’t seem to feel sorry enough.
You do what you want and whatever you can, even if that means ripping others off, including the “housed” citizens, and your fellow homeless colleagues who are weaker and more vulnerable than you. You get whatever you can take, and somehow in your own mind, you know you are justified doing what you know is illegal because you “need” it. You have probably had many, many contacts with police, both here and elsewhere. You are surprised with just how much you can get away with, and it is surprising to me too.
To this last group, I have this message for you; the party in Chico is over. You will get it together, you will change your life, or you will get out, one way or another. You will get out through the vast network of services available to people like you, or you will find that enforcement has taken a turn for the worse, from your point of view. You will find that Chico is not the tolerant, welcoming community for your lifestyle as it used to be. Soon you will be reminiscing about how great it was to be homeless in Chico, and how we ruined it for you. Don’t be surprised. It’s coming.
For the rest, I have this to say. We are all human, and redemption is part of being human. Wherever you are on the path through life, it can get worse or it can get better. In that regard, you are no different than anyone else.
Some people are more successful at navigating the opportunities presented in life than others. Life is not fair that way. But then, we also are what we make of our opportunities, and no one can take responsibility for the decisions you make. As they say, you are free to make your own choices, but you are not free from the consequences of those choices.
However, when you are incapable of making competent decisions for whatever reasons, society is forced to take over these responsibilities for you. This means you surrender some of your liberties and submit to care because you cannot care for yourself. If your family is unable or unwilling to do it, social institutions step in and assume the responsibilities for your care, and citizens hold them accountable instead of you. We do this for the very old, the very young, the mentally or physically disabled, and criminals. If you are any of these, there is help to be had. But if you choose to refuse that help, life will get harder, because the rest of us cannot tolerate a few people wrecking the quality of life for everyone.
This is not a new idea. It has been with us since the dawn of civilization. We have learned to be kinder, more humane, and more effective in how we deal with people living beyond the margins of civil society, and that is a good thing for you, and for us. Believe it or not, people have the capacity for both compassion and enforcing community standards. Parents don’t hate their children just because we discipline them. We do not hate our parents just because we take over their care when they can no longer care for themselves. Just the opposite. We need not be ashamed for setting standards of conduct that we are willing to live within, or expecting others to do likewise, and we won’t.
When one door closes, another opens. The door to camping and living and preying on innocent citizens of Chico has closed. A door to a better life for you has opened. Also, a door for a worse, more difficult life has opened. I hope you have the capacity and ability to choose well.
By Rob Berry, ESQ