Just what really is the problem Downtown?

5 Apr

Yesterday was one of my top 10 worst days. I won’t go through the events – there was blood – but suffice to say, when the dirt settled, everything went my way.  In a roundabout fashion.

I was supposed to attend the “Luncheon with the Chief” with the Chamber of Commerce. I put my foot in Katie Simmon’s door and told her I didn’t think it was appropriate for city employees like Kirk Trostle and Brian Nakamura to talk to a “members only” audience. Nakamura has spoken at their last two meetings – I couldn’t make those, and yeah, I’m suspicious they were talking about their proposed sales tax increase, but oh well. Yesterday was plenty juicy.

Of course I showed up 45 minutes late. I had a horrible morning, I won’t go into that. I got the time all mixed up. When I realized I hadn’t completely missed the luncheon, I got in my car (!) and jammed Downtown to catch the Chief’s coattails. I wanted to hear what he had to say to this “members only” audience, and I had a few questions to ask him myself.

The Chamber is made up of businesses from all over town, but lately they are taken up, like everybody else, with the “homeless problem,” which is perceived to be mostly Downtown.   “Homeless” is the wrong word – it’s like saying “Tea Party Patriot” – it could mean anything. I’ve been “homeless,” by the standard definition – I had no address, I was a “couch surfer.” I had my stuff at my sister’s house, where she lived with Husband 2 and the assorted kids.  I slept at her house when things were quiet, I slept in a borrowed sleeping bag in the back room at my job, I slept at friends’ houses when they weren’t home, etc. That was a time in my life that I measured by semesters. I moved every six months, sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. I’ll never forget the time a roommate and I both left our apartment in the middle of the night, sat all night at Dennys to avoid the domestic violence that went on in the apartment over our heads.  We sure as hell felt homeless for the month we lived in that dump, we never even unpacked our stuff.

But I’ve been Downtown, and I’ve lived in and around Downtown over the years – the problem there is mental illness, alcohol abuse, and a enabling city council and $taff.

The “homeless” question is complex. I attended a Police Advisory Board meeting a couple of weeks ago on the same subject. Lieutenant Linda Dye gave a short report about a week-long mental health class that trains “some” Chico PD officers in “how to handle”  people who may or may not be, uh, crazy.  She made note of the fact that some of these people are not crazy, but taking advantage of our kind hearts. Lieutenant Jennifer Gonzales pounded that point home at city council’s special meeting a couple of weeks ago. She feels Chico is on what she called “the homeless highway” and that most of them are perfectly healthy people who’ve learned to take advantage of the public in general.

So, with a “40 hour class,” these two women are now competent to  tell us who’s nuts and who’s just faking it?

Dye told us something that caught my attention – when they arrest somebody who is not considered to be rational, they take them to ENLOE for what they call “51/50”. That means they consider the person to be a danger to him/herself and/or the public and they are put on 72 hours observation.   These people are turned over to the staff at the Enloe ER – hey, that’s something you might want to know before you take your kid down to Enloe for that ear ache at 2:30 in the morning. I had a friend who took her kid in on an afternoon – sprained ankle – and described the place as “an insane asylum.” I thought she was talking about the nurses, but now I wonder.

So, they dump these nutjobs – oh, excuse me – helpless idiots off at the ER and drive away. These arrestees are supposed to be picked up by “the county.” That’s how Chief Trostle said it at the PAB meeting, just, “the county.” He and Dye said that sometimes “the county” is short handed, and they don’t get down to the hospital to pick these people up for hours. The hospital is not allowed to hold the person, so oftentimes these people, who some cop considered a danger to the public? – simply wander out of the hospital and back to whatever they were doing when the cops picked them up.

I looked into the county mental health department.  According to the Butte County website,  they’ve got 12 psychiatrists listed on staff and two nurse practitioners. But if you check the salary listings in the ER, you only find one of those psychiatrists listed, along with 23 “interns.”  As of 2010, that psychiatrist gets a major salary reduction, and then he’s gone.

I don’t know what to make of that, but given other stuff I’ve heard about Butte County mental health – including two suicides by patients who were allowed to wander out of the county facility – I don’t have very high expectations for their work.

So, here we’re left with a p0lice force that thinks they’re qualified to make mental health evaluations after a one-week class at Butte College, and an overpaid county staff who can’t even be counted on to pick up or supervise at-risk patients.

Yesterday the topic of conversation was a “sit lie” law, such as those currently under effect in cities like San Francisco. This means, essentially, the cops can arrest a person who is sitting or laying on the sidewalk and refuses to move out of the public right of way.

This law has been on the books in San Francisco, and got a  lot of attention during the “Occupy Movement”. Unfortunately, while you’d think it is a no-brainer to have laws permitting free movement on public sidewalks, this “sit lie” law has had little positive effect. For one thing, it looks like the cops, at their own discretion, are only really enforcing it in one part of town – the Haight district (don’t forget to wear a flower in your hair!). There it just looks like harassment, and the bums are moving through the jail faster than a revolving door, landing right back in their semi-dry puddle of puke before the average shop owner can hose it off the sidewalk. The shop owners are fed up – the “sit lie” law is just producing an overwhelming load on the courts, it ‘s not solving the problem of people laying sprawled out in front of doorways, demanding change, or just being generally abusive to customers and passers by. 

Here’s an article from the SF Chronicle:

http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Sit-lie-law-primarily-enforced-in-Haight-3763521.php

When I was a kid, we shopped in Chico, we never saw anybody resembling a wino or a bum. The sidewalks were clean – I think I would remember having to step over people, human and dog excrement, puke or other nasty substances, I was a little girl wearing my best patent leather shoes. My grandma was a very proper lady, and she wouldn’t have put up with stuff like that, she would have set up a howl with all her other old lady friends and it would have been dealt with, that’s how it was when I was a kid. You didn’t sit there and complain, you went out and said something to your elected officials. I remember standing on the steps of Ray Johnson’s house on Vallombrosa with my grandma and her lady friends, demanding highway improvements. Think of that next time you’re driving down Hwy 99 and you see that “Ray E. Johnson” memorial. 

So the Downtown merchants, mostly, are demanding the city and the cops do something about the mess this liberal council has allowed to fester Downtown. They want this “sit lie” ordinance. Chief Trostle says the police have been asking council to “give us direction.”  

And now, I have to go, but next time, I’ll tell you what the chief said when I asked him about the “A.C.E.” ordinance, which I feel is very related to the “homeless” conversation. 

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