As Chico works to reduce homelessness, a somber fact remains. ‘The resources to serve people are in short supply’

Nov 15, 2023

For more than a decade, Mark Hopkins lived on sidewalks in Chico with his dogs Titus and Jazzell. He avoided larger encampments, as he felt safe in smaller clusters of unsheltered people and was better able to control his space.

Then, in 2021 a group of homeless residents sued Chico after the city council voted to remove all homeless encampments on public property. The plaintiffs alleged that the city could not remove homeless individuals from the public right of way without providing adequate shelter in its place.

In early 2022, the two sides settled. Within months, the city erected 177 pallet shelters. Also known as tiny homes, the community was financed by the city and Butte County and managed by the local nonprofit Jesus Center. A coalition of public and private agencies — including the city — provide an array of services, such as voluntary behavioral health care and workforce development.

Hopkins moved into a tiny home almost immediately. His home has heating and air conditioning, power outlets, lighting, a fire extinguisher, locking windows, and a locking door. He has access to a shower, laundry, and three meals a day. Security patrols the site 24 hours a day.

“Living here is so much better,” said Hopkins. “I feel safe. It is important to me that I can leave my dogs inside, so I can pursue a job or volunteering. I couldn’t do that on the streets.”

A bad situation made worse

Chico has long had a sizeable population of unsheltered individuals. Over 107,000 people live in the city; 925 are unsheltered. According to self-reported data gathered by Jesus Center, more than 80% of those people have been homeless for over a year.

Like elsewhere, the factors that cause people to lose housing are multiple, complex, and frequently, hyper-local. It’s not just that Chico’s housing stock has failed to keep up with population growth. Residents must also compete for rental units with California State University Chico and Butte Community College students. 

Chico’s housing shortage was also exacerbated by the 2018 Camp Fire in nearby Paradise, which destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. Overnight, the number of people requiring emergency, transitional, and permanent housing rose dramatically. It overwhelmed the city.

“The Camp Fire had a tremendous impact on Chico,” said Mark Sorensen, city manager and former Chico mayor, whose two daughters lost their homes in the fire. “The vast majority escaped to Chico, which had a huge impact not just on homelessness, but also on traffic, sewer inflows, and social services.”

Sorensen said that many of those who lost their homes in the disaster ended up purchasing homes in Chico. This further displaced low-income renters and increased rents in an already strained rental market.

The Camp Fire was not the only other driver of homelessness in Chico. Long-term structural issues, high poverty rates, rapidly rising home prices, and other issues mean many low-income residents cannot afford to pay rent.

“Ten years ago, we had daily visitors who needed showers, a place to pick up their mail, and emergency shelter for women and children,” said Amber Abney-Bass, executive director of Jesus Center. “At the time, they had one or two things happen in their life, and they needed support to get on their feet. But now, on top of that, there is a rapidly rising mental health component and drug epidemic, ramping up the need and depth of services.”

Sorensen confirmed that the city has seen a rise in unhoused residents with substance use and mental health challenges. The rise in fentanyl usage has meant that city first responders are treating more overdoses. Legal rulings like the infamous 2018 Martin v. City of Boise hinder response efforts and “enable the cycle to continue indefinitely,” he noted.

“The resources to serve people are in short supply,” Sorensen said. “And we don’t have the ability to force people to get into treatment. If they don’t want help, they often remain in the homelessness continuum. We need from the state more solutions for mental health and substance abuse — not just money, but the ability to require that people in need go into programs to get the treatment they need.”

Building a better tomorrow

The tiny homes village is just one of the many ways Chico is ramping up its homelessness response. The city secured subsidized housing for people who formerly lived at large encampments, including at a low-barrier shelter run by the city, the new Jesus Center’s Renewal Center, and other shelters. The Renewal Center, which opened in Fall 2023, has 14 family units, 24 units for seniors, and a six-bed recuperative care partnership with Enloe Medical Center.

Chico has also stepped up the production of affordable housing. Developers are set to finish nearly 1,000 affordable housing units this year alone — a record for the city.

These changes have created some positive, tangible results. The number of unsheltered and chronically homeless individuals is down in Chico, something the county attributes to a focus on and rapid rehousing.

Still, the deck is stacked against Chico. The overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Chico increased again this year. Funding, services, and help from the state are all in short supply. The city needs all three to significantly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.

As Hopkins sees it, there is another crucial step — creating understanding. Now that he is safely housed and able to stabilize his life, he is turning his attention to demonstrating to the greater Chico community that unhoused residents are people just like them. He is putting together a team of tiny home residents for the city’s adult softball league.

“I see this team as a way to build a bridge with the greater Chico community,” he said. “It’s about people on different side of tracks interacting. You can’t know about someone until you talk to them. This way, people will see us as people, not what many think of us. We hope that will lead to a less judgmental approach to homeless people.

“For now, I am calling us The Transients,” said Hopkins. 

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