One of the cleaner campsites along the Susan River.

Residents share homeless horror stories with city council — threaten recall effort

The Susanville City Council got an earful during public comment at its Wednesday, Aug. 17 meeting as Susanville residents demanded the council fix the city’s homeless problem once and for all or face recall by the voters.

Susanville attorney Eugene Chittock, who said he recently purchased a piece of property along the river, pleaded with the council for help resolving this problem — even telling the councilmembers they could be recalled if they didn’t resolve the issue.

Chittock told the council just this morning he discovered people cooking their breakfast out in front of his building.

“They had a fire,” Chittock said. “They were cooking. At every angle I’m bumping my head. Please help.”

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Susanville Mayor Quincy McCourt responded.

“Have you ever read a text from somebody, and it was just off-putting?” McCourt asked. “I want to say I hear you, and I feel your frustration … If that sounded like one of those texts that might have been well-intended with the recall thing, I think you’re just saying you’re impacted by this homelessness and you’d like to get to know us and you’re serious. We’ll look for the positive in that.”

He explained the council and city staff have been meeting and discussing the homeless situation, but the city and the county have been unable to resolve the problem. He explained the situation from the city’s perspective this way.

“Realistically, we’ve pretty much been placating people, not because we don’t want to do anything, (but) because we haven’t had the perfect solution. That’s not a dis to anybody, but that’s the old, kind of red tag bureaucratic thing. So, this isn’t really the time to discuss it, but we are working with staff. Pretty much the mentality I’m hoping we’re transitioning to is, we’ll do something versus nothing.”

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McCourt continued there already have been efforts to help the homeless people who camp along the Susan River and provide them whatever services they might need. He said there have been many community efforts to clean the river corridor, and some of the homeless people have even found jobs due to those efforts.

 “We did this two and a half years ago, and we were going to immediately take care of it,” he said. “And then we did it two years ago and we were going to immediately take care of it … It’s a serious issue, and so we just need to adjust our mind frame that even though we don’t have the perfect solution, we definitely benefit from doing something. We’ve already promised that we would take action a couple of years ago, and here we are now. And we have.”

McCourt noted the efforts that have already been made.

“We’ve had a lot of volunteers clean up the river two weeks of every single month, and it has gone down. And yes, the past couple of months it’s been worse … Councilmember Brown and I just walked the river about two weeks ago. We said hello to the tents and talked to people. It’s a serious deal, and I want everybody in the public to know, yes, there’s a variety of different types of homeless people — those who have seen better days, those who are on vacation, those who are stealing and robbing, those who have some sort of sickness or illness or mental challenges. There’s a lot of variety, and there’s not one solution, but I urge everybody to get on the same page … ”

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These homeless people made their camp under the bridge on Richmond Road near The Rocks — right across the river from Lassen High School.

Although McCourt tried to stop Chittock from responding, Chittock blurted out, “Quincy, let me give you one little thread here. If you personally would meet with the police and give them some assurance that their job is to arrest for criminal activity — not homelessness, criminal activity — because the sentiment coming from them is ‘Oh, under Boise, and Quincy said,’ … Your name is thrown out there, so you’re a great person to talk to them and say, hey, if there’s a crime, make an arrest, because that’s not the sentiment I’m getting.”

McCourt said he’d love to meet with Chittock and discuss the issue one-on-one.

Later in the meeting, the council directed staff to make homelessness the city’s top priority.

Business from the floor — homeless horror stories
Earlier in the meeting, Chittock led the charge, telling the council about the vandalism and threats he’s faced since he bought a building on Riverside Drive for $450,000 six or seven weeks ago that’s only 25 feet from the Susan River. Since then, he said he’s had at least 12 or 13 contacts with law enforcement for incidents of vandalism and has suffered $14,000 to 15,000 in damage. He said homeless people use his electrical outlets, have stolen his outside plumbing, set fires behind his building and now he fears his insurance costs are going to go “through the roof.”

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“I’m trying to put some money into it to make that side of town nice,” Chittock said. “I’ve already had to install metal to cover windows. This isn’t the community I raised seven kids in.”

Chittock said the council is going to address the issue and resolve it or the community will have an opportunity to recall and replace the councilmembers with representatives who will.

“Something’s going to be done, and I’m going to hold all five of you to that task,” Chittock told the council. “I understand it’s a difficult process … I’ve been assaulted two weeks ago by an ex-inmate. It didn’t go too well for him, but the bottom line is this is enough. I’m going to hold you accountable. Don’t take that as a threat. I love this community. All seven of my kids were raised here. But what’s happening down at that end of town is out of control. I’ve had people bathing, completely naked at the back of my building. I’ve had people doing just about whatever they want to do down there.”

Chittock said his normal practice is to take photographs of the people on his property every day, and he shares those photos with law enforcement. He said the homeless people carry tools, and the air conditioner was “cut off the back of my building so they could take parts of it off.”

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And Chittock said he remains unsatisfied following his multiple contacts with law enforcement.

“They can comment being homeless is not a problem,” Chittock said. “That’s an accurate statement. But the crimes they’re committing are absolutely criminal acts. And it has to be dealt with. There has to be a plan put in place. Law enforcement needs to feel like they can enforce the laws. The sentiment I get — I met with the district attorney — she’s assured me if she gets a report from law enforcement, she will prosecute.”

Chittock said he and other business people plan to start a fund to get Crossroads or some other entity to put in some outlets in for use by the homeless to charge their phones.

“But the bottom line is, that fund can also be used for recall for anyone in this room who doesn’t want to get on board,” Chittock said. “I mean that sincerely. I can’t do this … My staff are terrified to even open the business down there because when they walk out of the building in the evening they’ve been confronted … It’s got to stop … Go down at 7 or 8 o’clock at night and walk along the trail. You will not feel safe, and you will understand the problem.”

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Councilmember Mendy Schuster asked Chittock to clarify some of his comments, and she asked about the city’s camping ordinance.

“It’s not being enforced,” Chittock said.

William Valentine address the Susanville City Council in January 2019 after an incident between his wife and a homeless person in Uptown Susanville.

Susanville resident William Valentine, who appeared before the council in January 2020 asking the council to do something about the homeless problem after an incident between a homeless person and his wife said, “I don’t want to stand here and go through a bunch of stuff because I’m not going to get any kind of answer on my questions, so I’m kind of wasting my time. Two and a half years ago I was up here for exactly the same kind of thing, and here we are, two and a half years later.”

Valentine said he just bought a piece of property on the river, and it’s taken him a month “to get three encampments out of there with all the trash and the defecating right there in the river. I’m like Chip. I’m all for whatever we’ve got to do. If I’ve got to donate an outhouse on a campsite for them somewhere, I’ll pay for it. But we’ve got to do something … Get our river back so our kids can go fishing and people could enjoy the river. That’s Susanville.”

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Valentine suggested there should be a place with showers and toilets, a place where the homeless people also could get help if they needed it.

“What are we going to do?” Valentine finally asked.

McCourt said he wanted the public to understand the council recognizes this is a serious issue.

“We do have a variety of options and plans,” McCourt said. “And we have discussed all the loopholes and hurdles and reasons why we can or cannot do certain things. And so, we have come up with some solutions. The hiccup has been they have not been perfect. And so, we’ve been hesitant as a team for the last couple of years to do basically anything, and that’s unfortunate. That’s basically the conversation we’ve had. That’s basically the conversation Mr. Brown had had. And over the years, we’ve all had that conversation. Now we just need to do something.”

Former city council candidate Curtis Bortle, a member of the Lassen County Behavioral Health Advisory Board, offered his comments.

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“I’m going to say some things that are uncomfortable, but they are fact,” Bortle said. “The fact is this community has had multiple opportunities to arrive at a solution to this situation. The reality is that the community did not like those solutions. Because the fact of the matter is there are laws that govern how we act. There are regulations that govern in what manner we behave, and those are well identified and decided and stipulated by people like legislators and judges and lawyers  … But the point of the case is that Susanville is not in the situation it’s in currently due to lack of opportunity. It’s because the people in this community do not like the opportunity that is in front of them, and therefore do not choose to enact upon that opportunity even though that opportunity may very well solve their problem. So, it’s not the fact that we don’t have solutions, it’s the fact that we are too apathetic to enact the solutions we have at our disposal.

This homeless person living on the Susan River wears a court-ordered electronic ankle monitor in 2019.

“While it’s great to see there are a lot of people who care because they’ve been accosted down at the river by some people who are less than desirable to deal with, the reality is you’ve got some business owners who are finally willing to do something because they’ve had a personal interaction with a problem. This has been a problem for a long time — before two and a half years ago, four years ago. It’s just that nobody really cared to deal with it, because it wasn’t really bothering anybody who had the authority to do so.”

He said a member of the church community suggested, “The right solution was just to evangelize these people, and then they would suddenly see the light, decide to stop doing heroin and get off the river. I’m sorry. That’s not going to work.”

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Bortle said there are laws in place that define how to deal with the homeless issue and solutions were proposed, “but multiple times the Behavioral Health Advisory Board and other state agencies have provided opportunities to the city and the county, and the response from the citizens was, ‘Not in my backyard.’ Well, if it’s not in your backyard, it’s on your river or it’s at your Crossroads. We have to find a place to put these people because they’re not going away. It might not be your favorite location, but guess what — you like the river better? So, figure out where that spot is that fits the legal bounds of how you have to deal with these people, and then suck it up and deal with it.”

Later in the meeting, councilmember Thomas Herrera suggested the formation of an ad hoc committee to consider solutions to the homelessness issue and to investigate “why we’re getting such a large number of transients or displaced people shipped here … We do not have the capacity to deal with that because we’re too small.”