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.
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.
Two and half years ago, when this region was hit by the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, few would have predicted that Chico would be the scene of this kind of repression. The city, in fact, made national headlines for the warm welcome it offered to the thousands of evacuees who fled the ferocious firestorm that had engulfed the town of Paradise. Multiple shelters were set up, and the parking lot of the Chico Walmart was transformed into a sprawling campground and soup kitchen, with residents donating tents and sleeping bags, volunteers serving hot food, and Chico State students organizing team sports and other activities for the Paradise kids. Many opened their homes and spare bedrooms to strangers. The outpouring of neighborly love and mutual aid was such a bright spot amid the fire’s destruction that it made the New York Times. Mark Stemen, a professor of geography at California State University in Chico, memorably put it to me like this: “A tsunami of fire and terror rolled down the hill from Paradise. But that tsunami was buffeted by a blanket of love and comfort” when evacuees arrived, by the thousands, in his home city.
Photo: Salgu Wissmath for The Intercept
When I first wrote about Chico for The Intercept, it was on the occasion of introducing a Chico Green New Deal, a landmark plan championed by the city’s then vice mayor, Alex Brown, developed in consultation with Cal State climate experts, and supported by the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement. Like its national inspiration, Chico’s framework married rapid decarbonization targets with plans for more affordable housing; a safe and sustainable food system; investments in “clean, 21st century” public transit; and green job creation, including projects earmarked for the poorest residents. The experiment was urgent. Chico had just seen its population increase by around 20,000 immediately after the fire — in a city of roughly 100,000. Its city manager, Mark Orme, described the impact of the fire as “15-20 years of population growth overnight.” Adding further complexity was the fact that Chico had long failed to provide anything like adequate affordable housing for its residents, pushing many into the city’s parks and streets. Which is part of the reason why Butte County, home to both Chico and Paradise, had declared a housing “state of emergency” one month before the Camp Fire happened, a disaster that displaced an additional 50,000 people at its peak.
Read Naomi Klein's full article in "Intercept"