It’s a ritual that has been repeated many times over the coldest months of Northern California’s winter. The Chico police arrive between 9 a.m. and noon on a Thursday, perhaps in the hopes of catching people when they are home. Home, in this case, being flimsy tents, draped in tarps, many of them strung up between pine trees, secured to fences, or hidden beneath highway overpasses. The cops read out orders and sometimes hand out flyers: You have 72 hours to clear all of your belongings or they will be destroyed.
Before the deadline, volunteers usually show up with trailers and pickup trucks to help with the move. They load up bicycles, coolers, and cats, as well as clothing stuffed in suitcases, plastic laundry baskets, and garbage bags. Then they drive around this scrappy city in the Sacramento Valley looking for a new place to set up camp — only to have police show up a few days or weeks later and repeat the whole wrenching eviction again.
In April, Chico’s anti-homelessness sweeps drew a harsh rebuke from a federal judge, who accused the city of willfully violating the law by flouting its legal obligation to provide viable shelter alternatives to its unhoused residents. Even in California, where the lack of affordable housing has reached epidemic levels in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Chico — an outdoorsy college town — stands out for the ruthlessness with which its city government and police have turned on unhoused residents. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California recently condemned the city for failing “to address the needs of its unhoused population while simultaneously passing ordinances that criminalize everyday behavior unhoused people undertake to survive.”
Adding a dystopian layer to this story: According to a survey by the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care, about a quarter of Chico’s unsheltered residents lost their homes in the 2018 Camp Fire which burned the neighboring town of Paradise to the ground, taking the lives of 85 people. For this reason, Chico’s war on the unhoused may be providing a grim glimpse into an eco-authoritarian future, in which the poor victims of climate change-fueled disasters are treated like human refuse by those whose wealth has protected them, at least in the short term, from the worst impacts of planetary warming. [Continue reading…]