The Nonprofit Fights That Keep Butte County Residents on the Streets After the Camp Fire

3 min
A Camp Fire evacuee carries his tent as rain falls at a temporary evacuation center next to a Walmart store on Nov. 21, 2018, in Chico. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When the Camp Fire swept through Paradise, Magalia and Concow last November, killing 85 and destroying almost 14,000 homes, it displaced some 52,000 people. And while some of them were able to quickly find solace on friends’ couches or in motel rooms, others were forced to seek shelter elsewhere.

And with a norovirus outbreak at the Red Cross shelter, many chose what they considered the lesser of two evils: camping at a Walmart parking lot in Chico.

The situation was untenable. While the camping may have started as a last resort for fire survivors, other homeless residents from Butte County began camping there as well.

In response, on Nov. 29, 2018, the Walmart Foundation committed $1 million to “help address the increased needs of the local homeless population affected by the Camp Fire” and to establish a year-round, low-barrier homeless shelter.

But the shelter was never built.


Many residents were conflicted over the proposed shelter. Part of the problem was that, because the real estate market is so tight in Chico, the chosen shelter location ended up being a few blocks away from an elementary school.

Backlash was heated. A petition opposing the shelter gained nearly 5,000 signatures, and during a lengthy public comment period at a Chico City Council meeting in early April, dozens of residents expressed their concerns over the placement of the shelter. One resident said the shelter had “no business” in their school neighborhoods, arguing that organizers should be prioritizing “public safety.”

“The location sucks, the plan sucks, the impact sucks,” Chico resident Rob Berry said during public comment.

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Ultimately, one of the service providers key to the project — the Jesus Center — dropped out due to the backlash.

Local stakeholders said that Walmart later dropped out of the project as well, though the company would not return a request for comment. And, at the end of the day, the funding was returned.

“I had a council member call and say, ‘What are we supposed to do? There’s people everywhere,' ” said Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center. “This was our big idea, and we had a big break because we had a funder that we don’t normally have and we’re not going to have again. I think that’s the part that’s just so sad to me.”

Chaos at the Continuum of Care

In her first year in a new position, Jennifer Griggs was having a hard time making her job work. Griggs had been hired as the Homeless Continuum of Care coordinator in Butte County the winter before the 2018 Camp Fire hit. It was her job to help connect homeless service providers with state and federal funding, conduct the biennial point-in-time homeless count and support rehousing efforts for the ballooning homeless population across Butte County.

The homeless count was conducted on a single day in March, just five months after the Camp Fire. That tally identified 2,304 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Butte County, many of whom were directly impacted by the fire. That's a 16% increase since 2017. But the report acknowledged that the results were likely an undercount "due to ongoing challenges in locating homeless individuals, especially those that are displaced and unhoused due to the Camp Fire."

In August, Griggs left the job — and the state.

Griggs cited many reasons for leaving. For one, while her home didn’t burn during the fire, it was damaged during subsequent floods — resulting in the loss of most of her belongings. And because of the damage to her home, Griggs and her husband spent several months living in a trailer on her property.

But she said one of the biggest reasons she left Butte County was the chaos behind the scenes at the Continuum of Care among providers and stakeholders, and a lack of empathy from residents as they tried to address the homelessness crisis in the area.

Even before the Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise and surrounding areas in early November, the Continuum of Care system, which is responsible for assisting local providers in obtaining money to address homelessness, was already overextended — both because of funding changes at the state level and a lack of administrative and technical support.

In the summer of 2018, California created a new block of grant funding to address the homelessness crisis in the state. That funding changed the way that the Continuum of Care did business.

Homelessness in Butte County

“We were just one of many across the state trying to figure out ways to process all these new resources,” said Thomas Tenorio, CEO of the Community Action Agency of Butte County and current chair of the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care. “We had a brand-new coordinator at the time, so she was trying to get on top of expectations or requirements of the state.”

With all that money on the table, that brand-new coordinator — Griggs — encouraged providers to collaborate on projects, rather than apply for them individually. The idea was to help nonprofits who were unfamiliar with the accountability requirements that come with taxpayer dollars to be paired with more experienced providers, so they could work together more effectively.

That didn’t work.

Instead, both Griggs and Tenorio said that each individual homeless service provider would often offer their own proposals for the same batch of funding.

“We were trying to gear up for a way to help provide that technical assistance or guidance to some of the more inexperienced agencies,” Tenorio said. “It was when the disaster hit that all hell just broke loose.”

After the Camp Fire, even more money was made available to help address issues of housing and homelessness. But just because more money was coming in didn’t mean providers knew how to acquire or use it.

But even when providers were able to work together, they would sometimes face significant community opposition to their plans.

“It was the city of Chico, and the citizens of Chico, really not coming together to embrace those who are experiencing homelessness,” Griggs said. “And it’s not even the people who were homeless prior [to the Camp Fire], we’re talking about anyone who was in that homeless situation. They were putting up barriers every single time.”

A Changing Chico

While the city welcomed fire survivors, the rapid influx of residents stretched an already limited infrastructure. And along with more people came more traffic, a smaller safety net and changing demographics in the city.

But Cootsona, director of the Jesus Center, thinks that frustrated Chico residents see their city changing into a place that they don’t recognize and that their way of life is being threatened by an increasingly visible homeless population.

“I think the amount of poverty on the ridge [in Paradise] and the burn scar revealed something that most people didn’t understand,” Cootsana explained. “Those of us who look at the numbers ... we knew how poor we were. You don’t feel it when you’re an upper- middle-class person living in Chico.”

Chico Mayor Randall Stone said he hasn’t seen anger directed toward the homeless population. Instead, he said it’s directed at the amount of time it takes to build more affordable housing to get people off the streets.

“At the end of the day, there’s only one way out of vagrancy problems. There’s only one way out of homelessness. And that is building homes and getting people into homes,” Stone said.

Things are getting better. In August, the Butte County Board of Supervisors approved nearly half-a-million dollars to address homelessness in the county — money that will go to fund four new positions that will help support the Continuum of Care.

“The county is now taking some concrete steps to being able to expand their support of the Continuum of Care,” Tenorio said. “They’ve already been at work with the state to create a funnel for new state dollars to be able to make their way here, and they’re working with stakeholders here in Butte County to be able to line our priorities and how we can try to have the greatest effect on what the needs are.”

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