by Dan Everhart
On Sept. 4, a group of local human rights advocates, organizing under the name “Housing Not Handcuffs,” expressed their outrage over Chico City Council’s consistent and enduring ineptitude on the matter of homelessness by disrupting the meeting in protest over conservative enthusiasm for criminalizing our unhoused neighbors even further.
The rich enjoy more polite means of gaining Council’s attention, the rest of us must purchase it with speech amplified enough to be heard above the deafening roar of their wealth.
A serious problem has grown steadily worse for years and still no viable solutions are blossoming from local government despite such fertile circumstances. Elected officials reject all research, reason and experience in response to the common modern social problems of wealth inequality, economic exploitation and housing affordability. For many years now, Chico’s General Plan has described deepening shortfalls in affordable housing. For even longer, City Council has done nothing to reduce the problem or to forestall its projected worsening.
Ten years ago, City Council did identify some excellent measures worth pursuing, but then did nothing except reaffirm those same good ideas and utter lack of progress on them whenever they were periodically required to ratify the latest plan. Would it be considered civil to ask the obvious question of competence posed by doing nothing for so long about a growing problem with such severe and widespread consequences?
For five years, concerned citizens have expressed alarm every time successive councils have failed to decline donors’ whims and answer downtown business outrage with nothing but yet another criminalization ordinance, unconstitutional, impractical, and destined to predictable failure. Research affirms the ineffectiveness of these efforts, finding consistently that it’s cheaper to shelter unhoused people than to persecute them. Doing the right thing reduces harm for the whole community and at the same time costs less. The research is easy to find for anyone willing to look, but that would require the kind of curious doubt those in power rarely encourage. Civility in the face of repeated willful ignorance or outright official deceit eventually counts as complicity.
Numerous ideas proposed before City Council in the past found no receptive audience there. Even nominal liberals seldom do more than mumble campaign promises about progressive action, as evidenced by lack of inclusionary zoning or any other affordability incentives so desperately needed with most federal money for new units now long since gone and rents grown too high for federal vouchers to cover. This problem is not new or newly recognized. Previous efforts have proven wholly insufficient for opening your ears and hearts; civility will be welcome once again when government embraces abrogated obligations to those segments of our community most in need of help.
The status quo dislikes all unpleasantness with potential for reflecting poorly on their anointed candidates. The context of privilege and prosperity once distanced some from the suffering so many neighbors now endure, but poverty has grown so pervasive that ease and comfort are compromised even for affluent citizens by this shameful reality that is enjoyed only by the vicious. It detracts from our collective humanity to have so many neighbors unhoused. It demeans the entire community when law enforcement and park employees are commanded to harass poor people with no place to go and who often suffer from all combinations of physical, psychological, spiritual and substance abuse issues. Where does it end and how can we intervene when you persistently refuse to listen? Either civility or one’s humanity must be abandoned when oppression exceeds all tolerance.
The problem has been identified, solutions have been offered and Council has failed to act.
When government offers relief only to the prosperous, when it refuses to take meaningful action year after year on the most pressing issues facing the city, when the marginalized, oppressed and exploited among us are consistently either dismissed or vilified by an extremist majority, community members committed to social justice are compelled to rise in disobedience. We are obliged to protest because City Council’s right-wing majority seeks to scatter and punish our poorest neighbors with reinvigorated criminalization measures that have already failed here for five years now. Continuing to cooperate with such ineffective and inhumane policies violates the principles of both prudence and compassion. Thanks to our protest, for one brief moment the wealthy were also denied access to city government, just like the rest of us are all the time. When social justice is long abandoned, civility has already failed.
Clearly the fear and hatred consuming us cannot continue much longer, where and when it ends largely depends on what we do right now. Alternatives that express more noble human values are available to us, and cost less too, but cooperation by the broader community is essential to real progress. Please reflect on the spiritual and ethical teachings that inspire your own virtue and see if we don’t agree on quite a lot. What would it look like if we tried to apply our best common values to this problem we all share?
Probably a lot like civility.
Dan Everhart belongs to the group, “Housing not Handcuffs,” and as a social worker and student of nonviolence, describes himself as an “advocate for better decisions, especially those affecting our unhoused neighbors.”