Hands in need: Chico City Council votes to preserve iconic public art, opens discussion on homelessness

This story was originally published by the Chico News & Review on Dec. 22, 2016.

The hands went up with middle fingers erected first, but that wasn’t the most controversial part of their installation. Back in 2000, the “Our Hands” sculpture’s $65,000 price tag drew widespread criticism; the better part of two decades later, that’s dissipated and the piece of public art in front of Chico’s municipal building has become iconic.

Now it’s in danger of falling apart, as the Chico City Council heard during its meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 20). According to a report by City Clerk Debbie Presson, the artist, Donna Billick, originally advised resealing the sculpture’s terrazzo surface every 10 years. With arts funding essentially nonexistent in recent years, the city’s never given the hands a fresh coat, leaving them to crack, discolor and become increasingly susceptible to the elements.

The Chico Arts Commission requested an allocation of $4,928 from the city’s facilities maintenance budget to strip, clean, patch, polish and reseal the sculpture. The price was a drop in the bucket, argued Todd Hall, chair of the commission. He pointed to the Americans for the Arts Chico Area Economic Impact Study, which concluded in 2015 that the arts generate more than $500,000 for the city’s coffers each year.

“Less than 1 percent of that would take care of this,” he said.

As Presson told the council, “Our Hands” isn’t alone in needing a touch-up—the Arts Commission has compiled a list of about three dozen pieces of public art in Chico that are overdue for repair and maintenance. The hands were placed at the front of the queue because they’re facing “accelerated destruction” as the compromised terrazzo coating may hasten structural damage from UV rays and water, Hall said.

The conservative majority council put up minimal fuss, though Councilman Mark Sorensen quipped, “I hate to vote for a $5,000 manicure.”

Councilman Andrew Coolidge made a motion to approve the Arts Commission’s funding request, which received a second by Councilman Randall Stone and passed by a 6-to-0 vote. Councilwoman Ann Schwab abstained due to owning a business within 500 feet of the sculpture.

Also on the subject of helping hands, at the request of Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer, the council opened a broad discussion on how to locally address homelessness amid a national epidemic.

“Cities all over the U.S. are struggling with how to reduce homelessness,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority is public safety, and I think we’ve spent a lot of time on staffing for public safety, but we all need to recognize the other issues facing us, and one is that citizens of Chico that are becoming victims because of some of the homelessness.

“We have downtown business owners who are suffering … and then, two, those that are actually struggling with homelessness.”

With input from the public and local service providers, the council identified problems and brainstormed solutions. They generally concluded that there is insufficient local data on homelessness, an acute shortage of affordable housing and troublesome gaps in service between city and county governments.

Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center, emphasized the need for more data. Currently, the greatest source is the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care’s survey of homeless people, which is conducted every other January and doesn’t account for the expanded homeless population in the summertime. Decision-makers need a more accurate picture of the problem, Cootsona said.

“We need to really focus on data, get the most out of it, collect more of it and understand what it’s telling us,” she said.

Speaking to the lack of affordable housing, Cootsona urged the city to consider “low-cost, innovating housing business plans.” For example, she threw out the idea of a mobile bunkhouse—basically, a trailer with some beds in it.

“We need you to help us apply the discipline so we don’t chase pie-in-the-sky ideas,” she said. “Where would we place that? How would we zone for that? How do we reduce the fees so we could actually sustain that?”

Another problem, added Mayor Sean Morgan, is that the efforts of individual organizations to house people “don’t always fall into lock-step.” To that end, Schwab suggested forming an ad hoc committee to liaison with Butte County. “We need buy-in from the county first,” she said.

Homeless advocate Dan Everhart suggested declaring a shelter crisis, which would potentially allow local government to access state funding.

Overall, the conversation’s tone was optimistic. Brad Montgomery, executive director of the Torres Community Shelter, lauded Fillmer for bringing the discussion forward. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been in seven years [as director] because of the amount of collaboration we’re seeing … We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer and it feels good.”

The discussion of homelessness will be ongoing. Cootsona is set to give a presentation during the council’s first meeting in January, and the Continuum of Care’s survey on Jan. 25 will provide the panel with more comprehensive information.

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