Homeless people in Chico victimized Should violent acts targeting unhoused be treated as hate crimes?

by Peter Schurmann, Ethnic Media Services
posted Feb. 7

The Eaton-Cohasset homeless encampment sits on Chico’s northern edge, a motley assortment of weathered tents, a couple of dumpsters and a port-o-potty that juts up from the muddy gravel.

photo by Manuel Ortiz, EMS
Jimbo Slice

With hate crimes targeting racial, religious, and sexual minorities on the rise nationwide, residents here say they’re being targeted for another reason: because they’re homeless.

“There’s some guy who drives around with a loudspeaker and a mask on saying, ‘Get out of Chico or get killed,’” says Jimbo Slice, 29. A native of Paradise, about 12 miles east of Chico, Jimbo -— he declined to give his last name -— is among the thousands who were left homeless by the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the region. “He drove by three times yesterday.”

For camp residents the threats feel all too real.

On several occasions last October and into November, the two dozen or so people who live here were sprayed with air-gun pellets fired from a passing vehicle. Charles Withuhn with the North State Shelter Team, which provides mobile showers to Chico’s unhoused, says four people were hit in those incidents.

“In the early evening, before dark, a police car would go by. A few minutes later, a compact car passed with the passengers shouting profanities (and releasing) high-powered automatic pellet fire,” residents told Withuhn.

photo by Manuel Ortiz, EMS
The Eaton-Cohasset encampment is a City-designated site where unhoused people who haven’t found or accepted other shelter can be referred.

The year prior, a homeless man at the Teichert Ponds camp was shot and killed and another injured by two teens. The judge in that case dismissed the charges, ruling the shootings were done in self-defense before any defense evidence was presented.

Phil, who is 56 and has lived at the Eaton-Cohasset camp the past two months, says being homeless in Chico is like having a target on your back. He points to his bicycle, which leans against the low-slung barbed wire that serves as the camp’s fencing. “If you’re on a bike with a backpack in this city, you’re a target.”

Experts in hate crime legislation say the original intent of such laws was to protect groups identified by specific, immutable characteristics such as race, religion, or sexual identity. A person with long experience in the field who spoke on background said there is a heated debate now over whether to extend such protections to other classes, including the homeless.

One such effort in 2019 failed to make it out of committee hearings. Opponents at the time argued hate crime laws would not deter attacks against people experiencing homelessness. More recently they contend that extending such protections to the unhoused would dilute the efficacy of hate crime laws at a moment when hate crimes and related incidents targeting racial, ethnic, and gender groups are spiking.

But with California home to nearly a third of the nation’s unhoused population, and with solutions seemingly non-existent, frustration is growing and, in some cases, turning into violence directed at an already marginalized and vulnerable group.

In Chico, homeless advocates say social media and political rhetoric are adding fuel to the fire, painting the homeless as a threat to public safety at a time when some city leaders seem bent on attracting work-from-home urbanites who want to move out of larger cities and back to smaller town life.

There’s a “constant group of people that have nothing but negative things to say on social media, and when that is all the public is ingesting it translates to a hateful attitude toward people experiencing homelessness,” says Hilary Crosby, executive director of Safe Space, which provides overnight shelter for unhoused people in Chico.

The latest Point-in-Time count from 2019 puts the number of homeless in surrounding Butte County at 1,125, though many here say the actual number is likely far higher. New figures are expected in March.

Addison Winslow is a Chico native and the lone progressive voice on the City Council. “The right has spun a narrative that taps into that grassroots resentment of homeless people” to create an atmosphere that is growing increasingly hostile and potentially dangerous for the unhoused. The violence is becoming “mainstream,” he adds.

photo by Manuel Ortiz, EMS
Councilmember Addison Winslow

Phrases like “toxic compassion,” meanwhile, are being bandied about by those on the right to justify the denial of resources to people on the street.

Sue Hilderbrand is a local activist and radio personality. In early December she was physically assaulted by a homeless woman while running errands. “As I relive it, there were about four or five seconds where I really thought she would kill me,” recalls Hilderbrand, pulling back her hair to reveal patches of raw skin where her hair had been yanked out.

But instead of turning on the homeless, Hilderbrand says her experience is an example of why the city needs to do more to provide essential services -— including mental health resources -— to this population.

“The lesson learned is not, don’t help people,” she says. “The lesson learned is, we are not helping people and that is making our community more dangerous.”

Sue Hilderbrand says her experience highlights the need for more services as a matter of public safety

Back at the Eaton-Cohasset camp, one of three sanctioned by the city, conditions feel increasingly hopeless.

“Every day these large trucks drive past blaring their horns, screaming at us,” says Phil, who jokingly suggests putting up a sign along the fence that says, “Honk if you support homelessness.” “I bet the honking would stop,” he laughs, before his mood once again turns grim. “I’m worried they’ll form vigilante groups one of these days.”

It’s early evening at a Safe Space shelter near downtown. Inside, Colleen Olson sits on a metal folding chair curled around her chihuahua. Born and raised in Chico, Colleen recently lost her RV after it was towed for being illegally parked. She’s struggling to raise the money to get it out of impound.

photo by Manuel Ortiz, EMS
Colleen Olson finds comfort in the company of her dog, Peanut.

In a flurry of words, she relates one tragedy after another, ending with the death of her boyfriend, the same individual, she says, who was killed in the shooting at Teichert Ponds.

Asked what has changed about Chico since her childhood, she doesn’t miss a beat. “This is not the town I grew up in. It’s more hateful.”

Editor’s update: The community raised enough money to get Olson’s RV out of impoundment and it has been returned to her since this story was first posted on the San Francisco-based EMS website here.

Additional reporting provided by ChicoSol Editor Leslie Layton.

20 thoughts on “Homeless people in Chico victimized Should violent acts targeting unhoused be treated as hate crimes?

  1. “The lesson learned is not, don’t help people,” she says. “The lesson learned is, we are not helping people and that is making our community more dangerous.” Sue Hilderbrand

    1. And now all but 9 will be evicted!
      “Chico to remove unauthorized campers at city site
      Only nine of 45 referred to site, city says” (Read in the Feb. 9 ER.)

  2. The point missed here is, the unhoused are the people that are in the shelters.. that Chico provided for them.. and they want the help… the people on the streets are destroying our town, their high their scary , Ect… and they want special treatment???! This is a choice these people want to take drugs not work they don’t want to be told what to do, they are going to do what ever they want, and they want a free ride doing it! They are destroying this town and we’re sick of it!

    1. I understand how you may feel. It is very frustrating to see all the garbage. I do believe that there is contributing factors of the government, giving them an endless supply of needles, and then disposing of them anywhere first of them having a very limited supply and holding onto them. I believe they should be Cited arrested etc. for having the abundance of garbage. But they are human things they deserve food and if it’s the shelter they create their shelter. It’s all about having some kind of regulations instead of a free-for-all. I don’t see them as lazy and wanting to be like that. Looking for a free ride. I see them as having no consequences. They’re addiction and mental health. There is no help out there no matter what people think there is no help out there. The help that they say they have is literally a referral to tell them about programs that really do not exist that meaning available. These people have let themselves down and all their family their self-esteem is in the toilet, they have lived this life for so long they know no different and I think that if we had adequate mental health and alternative housing would be the answer. Too many people are trying to dehumanized them. I find it sad they are mothers fathers children, sisters, brothers. By no means do I mean they should be able to do what they want to deny them sleeping somewhere because they’re unhoused is questionable to humane acts. I don’t understand why they’re not getting in trouble for all their garbage and their needles. To take away basic laws from them that we abide to is creating a horrific scene. They say they have shelters they say they have this that and the other well they have it very limited. I do believe that the law should be upheld when it comes to drugs, alcohol starting fires that are permitted and garbage.

    2. Spend a couple of nights in those shelters and see just how useful they are… oh and by the way most of the people in the shelters never get housed… and they all rotate in and out of the shelters and to the streets… most of the Chico homes population are the same people… Because in a city provided shelter or on the streets… it doesn’t even matter because THERE IS NO PRACTICAL HELP OR PRAGMATIC AND AFFORDABLE PATH THE PERMANENT HOUSING!!!

    3. You have to be kidding. Forcing people with fundamental moral, religious and political beliefs/values into shelters to live in close quarters causes great emotional suffering and abuse. Sometimes within shelter assaults are hidden from staff so no one gets thrown out. When a criminally minded/sociopath/psychopathic person goes to jail and their family goes into the shelters but eventually that member is released. They have no segregated shelter to ho to but are brought into a shelter full of people like their victimized family, it just gives access to previously abused people to create the same toxic situations. Thus the innocent family leaves for their own safety,this is the reason why so many stay outside.

  3. I know how it fills to be homeless in Chico, Around 6 years ago my wife and I lost our home due to some unforseen circumstances and let me tell ya living on the streets wasn’t easy, but we never gave up ..we both worked everyday ,taking the b line up to paradise to find yard work ..it was enough to keep us in motels for about a year until we finally caught a break and found a perment house of our own ..we’ve been in this house over 5 years now and things are going good..But I’ll never forget just how easy it was to loose it all and end up homeless ..

    1. I agree. I just wish that people wouldn’t start dehumanizing those without a home. I I think that this county would make a difference by enforcing the law of garbage, drugs, etc. just the ones they would enforce on honed people. I cannot fathom that somebody unhoused should ever be a crime. You cannot deny the basic need of sleep. Yet they hand out boxes of needles and make it so people don’t need to hold onto them and they end up all over our parks in town. After the campfire, my husband, who is diabetic couldn’t even get needles at Walmart. They sold him insulin and would not sell him needles. I think the basic laws feed inforced Will encourage people to be neat and tidy. In San Francisco they have this whole underpass. The people are allowed to set up their little camps. If you ever go there, you’ll see it is really neat and tidy I mean it’s maybe not the solution completely, but I thought it was pretty cool because they weren’t being denied the warmth a little small house whatever they make and yes there’s a police officer on the corner. He stays her all the time but I really thought it was Nate your foot traffic is not all over there. They’re not in front of somebody’s house. I think the Butte County could do better. I know there’s a lot of places making these tiny homes and I think that is a great answer. As long as butte county actually wants to back up the laws of littering garbage collecting whatever I think that there’s better solutions than acting like they’re all just lazy free loaders. It’s heartbreaking to hear people judge and I do understand I wouldn’t want them parked outside my house with a bunch of mess and garbage. But there’s better answers than just trying to make them leave. That’s wrong on all levels. Some of the people have already let themselves down little on their children, family parents. Their self-esteem is in the toilet and I don’t think the answer is to keep acting like they’re gonna leave. I also don’t think the answer is not backing up the laws that keep it safe and clean.

  4. Me and my husband were homeless and Chico off and on for at least 4 years . we have seen some absolutely horrific things happen to the homeless it was odd we would see an ambulance coming with no lights on to 1 mile as well as a couple of unmarked Vans and a cop car with no lights on they would round people up take them somewhere and you would hear some gunshots and then after a few seconds later you would here them set off some fireworks. It seems like they were rounding people up and doing something with them cuz you would not see them again after that my husband also had a cop follow him around for like a week straight every time he would see him the cop would look at him Point his finger like a gun and go boom boom and then drive away we left shortly after that. And it is sad cuz my husband grew up there his whole life I truly truly do believe that the homeless are being targeted my husband also had a car speed up to hit him as he was crossing the highway on a bike with a backpack on and then when he went to go tell the police they told him to go away or he will go to jail he said he wanted to fire all the report and they told him no go away it was absolutely terrible feeling you feel very look down on and very low it’s horrible and a lot of the homeless people I knew there were absolutely wonderful people struggling in their own way with their own problems but if you needed something they would help you even with the shirt off their back.

    1. I appreciate your honesty, Raw truth is Judgement, (a title) homeless) and that gives everyone the right to Judge.. God don’t like ugly. Shame on those individuals that believe they “KNOW”. BS I say, not everyone has drug and mental issues. Or don’t hold job’s. Individuals in this life , struggle. Who are you to assume . Yes, more tools need to put into the toolbox. Support to help change, mental, psychical and spiritual. Life ain’t easy, as I wasn’t born with golden spoon. I too lost everything in The Campfire. I did and have stuggled. I can’t stand how the treat God’s children, you neighbors with such disrespect. When it all accrued way back when. Dumpsters and port a johns should of been spread around all areas of the encampments. Extra services and never been dismantled. It would of helped to have
      dumpruns and humility present.

  5. At least thing’s are being said right on the homeless. We all wish something can be better then the hate that we experience being homeless

  6. This is such a sad reflection on hatred toward a diverse group of people who mostly are down on their luck (“there but for fortune go you and I”) and/or saddled with mental health and addiction issues, often generational. As the rich get richer and homelessness and mental health crises escalate, it is clear that our society is breaking down. The poor do not deserve to be poor – unfortunate circumstances such as medical emergencies, the Camp Fire, and unemployment, plus the drug epidemic, mental illness and lack of services are the foundation of burgeoning homelessness. This should not be a political issue. Homelessness should clearly be included in population groups protected by hate crime legislation. Where is our humanity?

  7. First stop the judgement. You don’t know why a person is Homeless. There are a lot of mental cases and drunks and addicts living in houses Also theives and Abuser living in houses owned by trust.

    1. I absolutely agree that committing hate and violence against homeless people as mentioned in this article, must be vigorously prosecuted and treated as hate crimes. However even as the law currently is with the number of incidents taking place near the Eaton-Cohasset homeless camp, the Chico police certainly should be doing a much better job and arresting the culprits. And when arrested, DA Mike Ramsey must vigorously prosecute them and they must serve plenty of time in prison. The police could be in unmarked cars in the area and they can arrest those perpetrators when they see them. If word gets around that people are being arrested for this crime, there would be a reduction of those incidents. As for what happened to Sue Hilderbrand, indeed “the city needs to do more to provide essential services -— including mental health resources -— to this population” as she stated. I am shocked to read what happened to her. Chico has gone way down during the 21-years I lived there. In Columbia Maryland where I moved to last September, there are people who are homeless people but not nearly as many as there are in Chico. I don’t see people walking around yelling in the streets at nobody in particular. I’m not familiar yet exactly what services there are for homeless and mentally ill people(not all homeless are mentally ill of course), but there must be a lot more than there are in Chico. I met a lot of wonderful people during the time I lived in Chico, many who I keep in touch with. However unfortunately, Chico has gone way down from what it was when I first moved there in 2001.

      1. This is america..you can live anyplace…disadvantaged go to places giving services…example Lima,Peru..12 million..over 3 million no water,electricity,health care…Mother Theresa, said the poorest of poor always will be…Chico has duty to help poor if only one at a time…we must help those poor also…

  8. What are the police doing about the harrassment and shoting at the people trying to live out there? I hope there is a plan.

  9. I hold a BA in Psychology. The sickest part of the homeless reality is that only 30-40 percent of the homeless are “legally counted by the US Gov’t” as “DISABLED.” The reality is another 25+ percent have given up on trying to appeal their way to court to get either SSI or SSDI. So the actual number of people with qualifying-as-disabled health issues is REALLY more like 65 percent. And many of the housed people run around saying that they are lazy, or choose deliberately to be homeless. It is shameful to keep begging for housing, and at some point you just give up trying after 20+ housing authority applications in 15 years, and you make it “ok” internally to be homeless because no real solid choices are ever or almost never come your way. (Homeless since 10-31-2010)

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