On a Friday morning in September, North State Shelter Team (NSST) volunteers keep the mobile shower unit running during their weekly visit to the alternate site campground. Hope Commons Church has brought coffee and rolls for unhoused campers. Suddenly, a ping ping ping interrupts quiet conversations.
Then, a tide of irritation and indignant anger rolls through the encampment with the realization that there has just been a BB gun shooting aimed at the group from a passing car. No one was hit, but any of us – from the unhoused to the community volunteers to a pair of ChicoSol journalists on assignment – could have been.
Witnesses near the gate saw a purple-ish Nissan speeding west on Eaton Road. Several volunteers call the police, and soon after Chico Police Department would leave a message to report that it couldn’t locate the car.
The site is about 2 acres surrounded by a chain link fence that’s covered by a green screen. A gate stands open. The land is bumpy flat with only a few struggling, scrawny young trees. About 25 people live here in tents or under tarps that appear jumbled, erected without organization. The campers are referred here after assessments if they’re not referred to a pallet or congregate shelter.
At the time of my ChicoSol visit, the site was littered with old furniture, tires and other items in heaps. There is something about this place that shocks; this is, after all, Chico, where I don’t expect to see slum-like living at Eaton and Cohasset roads.
Since then, NSST volunteers have organized resident meetings and undertaken dump runs to clean up the site.
Unhoused residents say BB gun shootings aimed at them were common during the campground’s first year of operation, but this shooting — the one that I just witnessed — might have been the first in broad daylight.
Camper Chris Y., who declines to be fully identified, says that during one period last year “they were coming every night.” On one occasion — about midnight toward the end of the summer — he was struck by BBs in the left shoulder.
“It hurt like hell,” he says. “I could have lost a damn eye. It sucks, man. There are people out there who would like to line us up in a firing squad and take us out. I get why they hate us –- there’s been some vandalism by the homeless -– but not everyone’s a piece of shit. We do get targeted.”
Robert Wetzel, another camper, seems less irate and more saddened by their relationship with the community. “We’re treated like animals, like a stray zoo,” he said. “People drive by and point at us and show their children. They drive by and shout at us, ‘Get a job, get out of California.’ They want us out of eyesight, that’s what the city wants.”
Wetzel says he often wishes that the group could put on a barbecue and invite members of the larger community. “When you break bread with someone you get to know them,” he says.
NSST founder Charles Withuhn says the single dumpster and weekly garbage pickup provided by the City aren’t enough for the site. To make matters worse, he says he’s twice seen people drive by and dump mattresses or other used items they wanted to discard. “A real fancy pickup backs in and pushes out a couch and drives off,” he says.
A couple of weeks earlier, campers say that someone threw a pipe bomb over the fence late one night. And when ChicoSol returned to the campground in October, residents said there were holes in the green screen that they believe were caused by bullets fired in a 3 a.m. shooting.
Wetzel heard the shooting but didn’t call police. “They’re not really on our side,” he says. “I’ve called before and it went against me.”
In an amicus brief filed by the City to support a judicial review of court rulings related to homelessness, the City discusses, in many of the 48 pages, the impact encampments have had on neighborhoods that have suffered property damage and theft, and on strained police, fire and public safety services. In the “Acts of Violence” section, it lists incidents between unhoused people that required a police response and incidents provoked by residents of encampments.
It does not discuss random acts of violence against encampments that were allegedly perpetrated by members of the larger community — with the exception of the 2022 Teichert Ponds shooting.
Some people shoot at this group of people. Others come with a shower unit or warm coffee. It’s that chasm between reactions from those of us in the larger community, between kindness and violence, that startles me most.— Leslie Layton