Please join me in welcoming Richard DuPertuis to A News Cafe.com for this first of many stories. We're glad you're here, Richard. By the way, I'm on vacation. The Weight is Over will resume when I return. - Doni Chamberlain
About 10 people -- members of Facebook groups Take Back Redding and Shasta Support Services, most who had never met in person - gathered for a meet-and-greet lunch in Library Park noon Wednesday.
The group traded stories and debated the best ways to address the growing homeless situation in their city.
"I came up with the idea that citizens should start using public spaces so the law-abiding citizens could feel safe," said Take Back member Shannon Hicks.
"We're not out to confront or engage," he said. "We're just making our presence known."
Hicks said the plan was to displace the denizens of this small strip of grass and concrete in the shadow of the historic Lorenz building; people who use that area to routinely do drugs, have sex and use the grounds as a bathroom in plain view of the public.
He said the other purpose of the lunchtime gathering was to meet with some of the people he'd grown to know online.
"I work not too far from here," Chris Fazzari said. "This is the local park for lunch, but it's very uncomfortable being here. When I first moved here, it was a great place. I didn't feel like I was invading someone's sleep."
A slender, middle-aged man wearing three layers topped by a black leather jacket approached the group. One member's dog, Analyn, stood and barked, holding him off. The man grinned, revealing a gap from a missing tooth, as he laughed and lunged in play. After a minute he moved on.
"They'll get in your personal space," said Vicki Loe. "You have to constantly be on your guard. You can say no, whatever. They don't care."
Another woman, Nancy Baker, shared her experience.
"Even at the bus stop, when you're sitting there waiting for a connection," Baker said. "I won't bring my 2-year-old granddaughter here. I won't bring my 17-year-old granddaughter. And it's not just this bus stop."
Chris Fazzari agreed. "I came to enjoy lunch with some people I might enjoy being with," adding he had also mingled with members of this luncheon online.
A debate began among the people in the park when a woman, Rachel Whitaker, arrived with a petition calling for the support of opening a new homeless center in Redding.
Whitaker, who revealed she had gone through Redding's homeless support services as a homeless felon a year ago, said she wanted more support than is provided by the Good News Rescue Mission.
"The Mission is not open to all," she said. "You have to be part of the program."
She explained how the Mission would contrast with her proposed program.
"The homeless day resource center is open to anybody who wants to take a shower, who wants to look for work," Whitaker said. "They'll have to put in some work time. We're not going to let them hang around doing nothing. We want to give them some purpose so they can build up their self-esteem."
Baker posed a scenario: "Men will come in and be so out of it they won't be able to do anything," Baker said. "Will you allow them in?"
"Not all homeless are drug addicts," replied Whitaker. "If people are psychotic and can't get along with other people, we handle it like anyone would."
Shasta Support Services co-founder Dale Ball advised Whitaker to take another look at the Mission.
"They've made a lot changes in the past year," he argued. "They provide all of that."
Sharon Smedley, who runs a sober living home for women, said such a community center wouldn't be able to handle the mentally ill, and that she would rather see the city establish a professional mental health facility.
"I would not mind having taxes raised if there was some accountability, if the money goes for crime prevention and public safety," Smedley said.
Ball said another reason he came to the lunch Wednesday was to show support for businesses, which he said were plagued by homeless problems.
Annie Goldbraith, manager of Deja Vu restaurant, located in the lower floor of the Lorenz opposite Library Park sighed and said, "Oh, yeah. It's a daily problem. Let's leave it at that."
The business closest to the crowds who loiter on the stage in the park is Carousel, a womens clothing store. Suzanne Russell took ownership of Carousel a few months ago.
"I lived downtown, and I worked downtown, so I knew what I was getting myself into," Russell said.
"I've had to kick people out for shoplifting, charging their phones, or just wanting to hang out. I apologize to customers a lot and walk them to their cars."
At that moment the atmosphere in her shop was quiet and peaceful. Four or five customers milled about the displays, including a woman with two small children, who purchased an item, and left the store with a smile.
"Inside, you don't feel fear," said Russell.
"But when it's empty, and it's just me -- a buck twenty -- and there's people shooting up and smoking crack pipes right out there, that's the moment it's scary."