The Response: Resisting COVID-19 with mutual aid in Chico, CA

Image credit: Kane Lynch

Pretty much every night since the coronavirus lockdown began, people all across the country have been coming out on their patios and porches and front lawns at eight o’clock in the evening to howl. 

It’s a fun and goofy little thing to do, but it’s also more than that. It’s a ritual, a gesture, however small, to challenge the loneliness and isolation of quarantine. Just like with washing your hands and wearing a facemask, little community rituals like this offer us a certain kind of protection, reminding us that we’re not alone. 

But people in Chico, California are doing far more than just howling on their porches — many are going out into the abandoned corners of their city, the houseless encampments or the low-income housing communities, to check up on their neighbors and share what they can. Because in Chico, just like in many other cities, there are entire communities that have fallen through the cracks — cracks which have only widened and deepened during this pandemic. 

In this episode of The Response Podcast, we take a deep dive into the work being done by the Chico chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA. Their mutual aid work in response to the coronavirus pandemic is just a microcosm of the whole country, from major cities to rural communities, where DSA and other, similar organizations have been stepping in to fill many of the gaps left by the local, state, and federal response.

“Resisting COVID-19 with mutual aid in Chico, CA” episode credits:

  • Host and executive producer: Tom Llewellyn
  • Senior producer, field production, and script writer: Robert Raymond
  • Script editors: Courtney Pankrat, Tom Llewellyn, and Neal Gorenflo
  • The graphic art created for this episode by Kane Lynch was inspired by photos taken by Brittany White
  • Information gathering and fact checking: Addison and Alex (Chico DSA)
  • A special thank you to all the volunteers at Chico DSA, and to those who are living at Bird Street and Comanche Creek Greenway for letting us into their homes.

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Below is a transcript of  “Resisting COVID-19 with mutual aid in Chico, CA,” modified for your reading pleasure:

[Fade in sounds of people howling]

Tom Llewellyn: We’re in Chico, California, in the Barber neighborhood at the southern end of town, and those definitely aren’t coyotes or wolves that you’re hearing. Those are people. And well, maybe a few dogs joining in, it’s hard to tell. 

Pretty much every night since we’ve been in coronavirus lockdown, people all across the country have been coming out on their patios and porches and front lawns at eight o’clock in the evening to just… howl. 

It’s a fun and goofy little thing to do, but it’s also more than that. It’s a ritual, a gesture, however small, to challenge the loneliness and isolation of quarantine. Just like with washing your hands and wearing a facemask, little community rituals like this offer us a certain kind of protection, reminding us that we’re not alone. That, although the streets look empty, other people are still out there.

[Fade in music: Strongboi — Honey Thighs]

Tom Llewellyn: But people here in Chico are doing far more than just howling on their porches — many are going out into the abandoned corners of the city, the homeless encampments or the low-income housing communities, to check up on their neighbors and share what they can. Because just like in many other cities, there are entire communities here that have fallen through the cracks — cracks which have only widened and deepened during this pandemic. 

In this episode of The Response, we take a deep dive into the work being done by the Chico chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA. Their mutual aid work in response to the coronavirus pandemic is just a microcosm of the whole country, from major cities to rural communities, where DSA and other, similar organizations have been stepping in to fill many of the gaps left by the local, state, and federal response. 

[Fade out music: Strongboi — Honey Thighs]

[Sounds of deliveries and food being prepared]

David: I’m gonna throw some onions and taters. Do we have any more of the little cards with avocado toast? 

Zoe: We do.

David: Let’s give them each one of those too.

Zoe: Yeah.

David: My name is David, I work with DSA and North Valley Mutual Aid as a volunteer.

Tom Llewellyn: We’re at Chico DSA’s mutual aid distribution headquarters, the location of which they requested we keep private, due to the backlash they’ve faced from some members of the community. Roughly 30 volunteers like David have prepared and delivered hundreds of grocery bags over the last few weeks which they’ve been distributing to vulnerable communities in the area. Today’s delivery is actually going to Oroville, a small town about 20 minutes outside of Chico.

David: Oroville is an economically depressed area. There are a lot of houseless people down there. There are a lot of people that are in need during this, and unfortunately it’s also a relatively conservative area. Most of the community outreach that happens, happens on Facebook and it’s very gated. It’s sort of, people who know people take care of themselves. And so there are large sectors of the community that are just sort of ignored. 

Tom Llewellyn: The destination today is an old hotel on Bird Street (in downtown Oroville).

David: Oroville has several hotels that are essentially housing for people with cognitive disabilities, recovering addicts. They are among the poorest of the poor when it comes to being able to provide for themselves, and being able to offer them groceries and just basic commodities to keep them from having to go out and risk their life and limb is really helpful to them.

David: Hi Jenny. 

Jenny: Oh, hello.

David: I bring unto you your groceries.

Jenny: Awesome!

Tom Llewellyn: Jenny hasn’t been staying at Bird Street for that long. She’s from Reno but left a few months ago to get away from a severe domestic violence situation. She’s also been fostering a baby while she’s been here. 

David: I brought you diapers, brought you sanitary wipes.

Jenny:  Oh, cool. 

Tom: Bird Street is pretty run down, and the rooms are packed tightly together. It’s not an easy place to live — there are a lot of disturbances and the cops get called all the time. Jenny’s room is full of boxes. She’s packing up, getting ready to move a few hours north of here, where she knows some people and might be able to provide a better environment for her foster child, Michaela.  

David: How’re you holding up?

Jenny: I’m holding up, but I’m gonna leave, maybe by next weekend.

David: Ok. Well, let us know where you go so we can keep bringing you stuff.

Jenny: I don’t want to put the baby in the environment here.

David: I don’t blame you, it’s a pretty difficult environment. 

Tom: David’s been delivering groceries to Bird Street for about six weeks, and he’s made about 25 deliveries during that time. He actually lives just down the street, and he’s gotten to know the people here pretty well, building connections that go beyond just the delivery of groceries. When residents in neighboring rooms heard his voice, they all came out to say hi as Jenny updated him on the latest developments with Michaela. 

Jenny: And now, guess what, she’s walking.

David: Is she?

Jenny: Oh, I’m serious.

David: Uh oh, you’re in trouble now.

Jenny: She’s taking like one or two steps 

David: Awww.

Jenny: And then she looks at me and she’ll give me a hug and I say, I’m Nana. 

David: Well Nana, I’ll be right back.

[Music: Pele — Hospital Sports]

Tom: There are thousands of volunteers like David doing similar work across the country. Organizations like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, Grassroots Aid Project, and Disability Justice Culture Club are just a few other examples, but here in Chico, a lot of the organizing is being done by North Valley Mutual Aid and DSA. 

[Fade out music]

Kari: My name is Kari Logan, I moved to Chico a year and a half ago and was trying to get into DSA stuff as a way to make new friends in a new place.

Tom: When she’s not working as a school teacher, Kari runs dispatch at DSA headquarters. 

Kari: I’ve done a couple of the deliveries, not a whole lot, but, every now and then I’ll do one if no one’s available. But usually I’ll do dispatch or I’ll be the one at headquarters to make sure that everybody’s available to get their stuff bleached down and make sure that everybody follows sanitation protocols. I do what we call dispatch which is essentially reaching out to our participants, the people who are getting the deliveries. And I say, you know, our volunteer who’s been dispatched and they’re on their way to get your items. And I keep in contact between our volunteers and that participant and let them know if there’s any item that we can’t find at the grocery store or if we can substitute like a cheaper brand or something. If there’s any kind of issue, they can find the off brand instead of specifically Marie Calendar’s — Marie Calendar’s is what comes up a lot in the grocery lists.

Tom: For deliveries to low-income folks, DSA does provide subsidy bags. they’re able to cover the costs with donations they received from raising money on GoFundMe — these are what David took out to Bird Street. 

But they don’t have enough funding to do this in every instance, so when recipients can afford it, which is often the case for deliveries to elderly or immunocompromised folks who aren’t low-income, they ask that they pay for their own groceries. In these cases, volunteers get the shopping list, go out and buy the groceries, and then make the deliveries. 

Kari: So there’s a couple different options. The way it works is we take our list and then ask them how they would prefer to reimburse their volunteer for the cost of the groceries. They can pay with cash or check. And if they do that, they have to put their money in like a little Ziploc bag that we can leave in a different spot and let it air out for a little bit. Or we have little card readers. And so we sanitize the card, pass over the little thing and they swipe it and we sanitize it. And it’s like a whole little process that we have. But the best way is also the most complicated way for our elderly friends, is getting them to set up Venmo or PayPal. And that’s — it’s quite a process. They do not like doing that. But that is the easiest and safest way for us to get reimbursed.

Zoe: DSA stands for Democratic Socialists of America. It’s a nationwide community organizing organization.

Tom: This is Zoe, she’s been working with DSA in Chico for about three months.

Zoe: People understand the organization to be like democratic socialists. But the way that we have it locally, at least there’s like a lot of breadth to the ideologies that are involved, like we have, like, communists, socialists, anarchists, like a lot of different people all involved under this kind of like big tent organizing group. And I think that works really well, especially in small towns like Chico, because there isn’t anyone else politically organizing. So you can bring in those disparate elements of the left and have them work together under this one framework.

Tom: DSA is the largest socialist organization to exist in the United States in over a century, with roots going all the way back to the Socialist Party of America, which formed in 1901. Their membership numbers have exploded in the last decade, with thousands of new members joining the organization after Bernie Sanders ended his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.

Their long-term goals could be summarized as the abolition of capitalism and the realization of socialism for a more free, democratic, and humane society. 

They don’t run candidates, but do focus some of their energy on political reforms. Many of their chapters have been consistently involved with mutual aid efforts, and because they’ve been organized for so long, moving into coronavirus response evolved pretty organically. 

Zoe: The mutual aid stuff, it was kind of weird the way it happened. We were all just kind of sitting around talking about the pandemic, this is a week before the lockdown started; maybe in less than a week before the lockdown started. And we were just talking what we can do to be prepared for what’s what’s coming, what’s going on. And one of the people actually suggested that his grandpa, I think was immunocompromised, and needed someone to go out and bring groceries to him. And that snowballed into a wider idea of how we could do exactly that — just go out and bring people their groceries and prescriptions and whatnot.

Tom: Since then, volunteers have been meeting up every morning to coordinate the day’s deliveries. It’s about helping people, but it’s also solidly situated within a framework informed by a deeper set of values.

Kari: I grew up very religious and my church community always had volunteer stuff to do. But it always felt kind of dirty and performative. And I wanted to find a group that wasn’t like that to volunteer with. I knew that DSA had that. And so that was one of the reasons that I was drawn towards DSA because with mutual aid, I love the idea of, you know, you’re not looking down on someone and saying, here, let me pull you up. You’re just like, no, we’re already on the same ground. I’m gonna help you so that you can help me later or because you’ve already helped me. It feels more neighborly, more friendly, more the way that we’re supposed to live our lives. And it doesn’t feel like there’s some need to prove that you’re a good person. It’s just I’m doing this because I want to. And I feel like it’s the right thing to do. 

Zoe: There’s this understanding of there being a social safety net that the United States has. And I think something that COVID-19 is really proving is that not only is the existing safety net decrepit, it’s falling apart all over the place, but also there are lots of places where the safety net isn’t actually there for anyone. I mean, very specifically with the people that were told to shelter in place, but are low income. They can’t go out. They can’t afford delivery services, that kind of stuff, because those are — those can get pretty expensive pretty fast — that there just really wasn’t a solution. So from our perspective, showing up and doing mutual aid for those folks actually provides a social safety net that is outside of the government organization to make sure that those people are not getting left behind. Not letting people get left behind is kind of the core idea behind mutual aid. It can create like solidarity that we’re all in this together, that we’re not just going to leave the people that aren’t as convenient to take care of behind, because that’s what capitalism says we should do. We’re actually going to try to create systems that allow those people to survive despite what’s going on in the larger society.

[Sounds of walking]

Sean: Hey, how you guys doing?

Alex: Hey, I’m doing well. How are you?

Sean: I’ve been better.

Alex: Yeah? We’ve brought you some food here Sean.

Sean: Right on.

Tom: We’re at Comanche Creek Greenway, a park located at the southern tip of Chico. 

David: Here’s some water bottles. 

Alex: Thank you so much guys.

Sean: Yeah, absolutely.

Alex: God bless.

Sean: And is there anything else that we can bring you, or anything?

Alex: Maybe like a sleeping bag and maybe a tent?

Tom: We’re out here today with Alex, another DSA volunteer. Comanche Creek is a place where houseless people encamp, and DSA is providing service in partnership with True North Housing Alliance and Safe Space, a low-barrier emergency shelter in Chico. 

Alex: …yeah, we’ll look into it. Alright, thank you so much Sean.

Sean: Thank you.

Alex: What we do is we hand out meals which are supposed to be breakfast and lunch, out to houseless folks so that they can help shelter in place. Because honestly, that is one of the biggest needs within the houseless community. And if it’s not fulfilled, then they can’t help shelter in place and stay in place, really. So we provide both food and some water. We also provide tents as well as some other, you know, various things to help people stay in place. We’ve also handed out masks as well as hand sanitizer.

The whole concept is to mutually aid each other. There has been some political groups here in the local Chico community who have taken pictures of trash around this area as well and have posted it online as a rationalization for why houseless people shouldn’t be allowed to encamp anywhere… But when it really comes down to it, if you give them the means and the service of trash service and trash pickup they’re perfectly willing to keep their homes, which is their encampments, which is their tents, clean. And so we provide trash bags. We come in every week for a clean up. It’s mutually aiding each other because if they keep their, you know, encampments clean, it helps people stay healthy as well. We also provide them the means to do so because they would love to keep their homes clean. But it’s very hard to do when they don’t have access to a car. And the dump is about a few miles away and on a highway. So that’s why we kind of do out here.

Tom: Like many places in the U.S., Chico has a growing houseless population. Affordable housing has been an issue in many California cities for a while, and here in Chico, it’s only gotten worse. Many people displaced by the Camp Fire in 2018 have landed here; often forced to live on the streets or in places like Comanche Creek. 

In March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines instructing cities that they should stop clearing houseless encampments in order to reduce community spread of COVID-19. According to the CDC, “clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community,” which “increases the potential for disease spread.” 

Ending encampment sweeps, has been a focus for the housing and houseless justice community for quite some time, and is certainly not a new problem. But it’s especially dangerous in a pandemic, and many cities across the U.S. are still conducting sweeps. And it’s not always just the official authorities.

Alex: There are often target teams and other teams that come out and help sweep encampments away. They bring in cleanup groups who are often here and they look down on people here and throw out the trash that they see. But that’s actually their belongings. That’s the stuff that they have. Those are often right wing groups who believe that handing out this stuff is considered enabling. 

They come in here and they sweep people out. They don’t allow people to encamp here and give them 48 hour notices to just clear out of the area. And so people are not necessarily able to just stay in one space.

If you clear out these people, you know, they’re not allowed to actually settle down and have, you know, what I’d consider a home. They’re not allowed to, you know, really identify with the space and think of it as something that they should probably keep clean or it doesn’t give them the option to really be outside of a home or, as we consider it, like a house.

Jonathan: Do you need my credentials, to where people just think I’m some lazy motherf***er trying to get out of work by being homeless?

Tom: This is Jonathan.

Jonathan: Because I am not that. I had a badass job in Atlanta, Georgia. My daughter was killed in a car accident. She’s buried right down there, and um, it’s no excuse but that’s why I’m here. I did this to myself, I put myself in this position. I went through a big depression. I don’t know if people lose their daughters — she was twelve and a half, so it’s not, I can’t say what age is, whatever, but that was my little girl. Everyone called her “little John,” I mean, to that extreme.

Tom: Jonathan is staying in one of the encampments here at Comanche Creek. Everyone here knows him, and the DSA folks have gotten to know him pretty well too.

Jonathan: I’m here because I put myself here. It’s not a bad place, Chico has always had a little bit of a homeless problem. But Chico has one thing that’s always been the bad thing about this place is its police departments. And I’m not trying to get the cops to come kick my ass or anything, cause they’ve done that, it’s like, check yourselves, you know? Be human. You know be human, that’s all anybody has ever asked. 

Tom: Dealing with hostility coming from parts of the outside community is a lot to handle, in addition to the many other challenges of being unhoused. The work being done by DSA to deliver supplies and solidarity out here isn’t a solution, but it does make a difference. 

Jonathan: I just want to get along and to survive, man. Right now with this virus, I mean people need to open their eyes. Let’s not hate each other, let’s pull together as a team. Thank God you guys, they found the hardest thing they could get behind. This is hard, representing us. It’s got to be, people look down on you probably for helping us. And these guys, I don’t know where they’re getting food from, I don’t know if they’re stealing it, but they bring it out, cook meals. Some of it’s actually pretty good. It really is. But you know, it’s a godsend.

Robert: It’s been making a difference for you, the support?

Jonathan: Yes, right here mainly for me, but the food is, that’s huge. But me, I needed some faces, I needed some smiles, cause I smile, I like smiling people. That’s what I need. Cool as well, man. 

Tom: At the same time as they’ve been working to support folks living in the encampments with their basic needs, Chico DSA has also been involved with something called Project Room Key. 

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom authorized the commandeering of motel rooms for use by elderly or immunocompromised houseless individuals during the pandemic. 

DSA, along with North Valley Mutual Aid, the Jesus Center, Safe Space, the Torres Shelter, and True North Housing Alliance, have been working to lease and manage hotel rooms in the area as part of this state-wide project. 

[Music break: Ada Lea — Mercury]

Addison: The shelter in place order is put out as sort of this like ask or this demand that people are staying in one place and are not going out in public and stuff. One, people on the street, it just denies the existence because you don’t have a place to shelter in place. 

Tom: This is Addison, another volunteer and organizer with Chico DSA.

Addison: So we know that they make these asks of people, but they don’t really physically have the resources or the services available to take care of people. So this is us filling in the gaps in some respect. And it was — particularly when we’re thinking about elderly people in affordable housing that we know can’t afford delivery service. We know they can’t go to the grocery store now. So we know that there’s a basic need that’s just a gap right there. And we can offer to fill that because we have some capacity to coordinate volunteers, I guess, effectively as just a socialist group that is regularly in contact and used to things like that.

Addison: And there’s that much of just like we want to take care of people because we don’t — I guess we believe that you have to insist that people don’t fall through the cracks. And if you let that slide, then we’ll never have any faith in each other. We’ll never be able to have, we’ll never have to guarantee just the basic existence for all working people, which includes us. A lot of us are being laid off, have been laid off, and that there’s going to be no security for anybody. So it’s sort of like holding down moral principles that we’re not getting from our government; we’re not getting from the business owners; we’re not getting from the landlords. On the other side, it’s like operating on these principles, like a horizontal organization — we’re not anybody’s bosses, but we’re all collaborating to make sure that people are taking care of it, it’s a little seed of an alternative, something that can grow up. 

We’re hoping that this sort of rapid response work that we’re setting up in these networks can turn into permanent institutions, which sort of changes the expectation that people are just going to starve because they don’t have money when we’re able to start providing food for people in camps sheltering in place. We recognize that people having food is a public health matter, that’s important to everybody. Then we can continue to provide those sort of things we can have at cost meals for people. And we can make Chico a place for people without a lot of money, without satisfying any boss or any landlord, that people are still able to have a dignified life here.

[Delivery sounds]

Tom: We’re back at Chico DSA’s headquarters, where Addison and Zoe are preparing deliveries for the day and sorting through a bunch of the food donations that have been coming in.

Addison: We have snacks for volunteers because snaxis is praxis. And potatoes because we found potatoes were scarce and we’re able to acquire like 150 pounds of them. Grapefruits were just donations that came off trees here. We have hand soap and we really have to ration the hand sanitizer, unfortunately. But we want to make sure that all the delivery volunteers always have hand sanitizer on them because your health outside is as important as your health inside. So that you’re the least at risk that you can be. Gloves and toilet paper, baby wipes. We were able to acquire some that have been scarce elsewhere. And we have some masks for us; not enough to be distributing, unfortunately, but just to cover our volunteers. And avocados, because we all deserve bread, but avocados too.

Tom: There’s actually a whole philosophy about the avocados — it’s related to DSA’s logo, an image of a rose, the meaning of which Addison explained to us.

Addison: So back in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Women in nearly every textile mill in a textile town of like 60 different nationalities, all went on strike. The situation was they had this state law required them to cut hours a little bit and they cut pay with that. I mean, the people were already starved, their life expectancy was like in the 40s. I think a third of people growing up there were dead before the age of 25. And it was just miserable conditions. They did strike and the bread and roses aspect comes in where they were told that [they] should get back to work. It’s like you’re already paid enough to survive. It’s like what are you complaining about? It comes from a poem. Some women carried the banner that said, we want bread, but we want roses, too. And it symbolizes that a little bit above normal [is where] we can say that we all deserve to live. But even if we are living, we still have demands to be made. 

Tom: In addition to supplies and smiles, Chico DSA is also sharing information with people. They’ve been working on literature to give out while on their deliveries — this is where the avocados come in.

Addison: So we were just working on this little sheet explaining the Bread and Roses strike in 1912. It’s just like back in 1912. Like, let us tell you a little history here. We’re also giving out avocados because we particularly did outreach to the senior only affordable housing, subsidized housing and mobile home parks. And they give us a lot of really modest shopping lists sometimes. And we figure they get their bread and they get their milk. But, we all deserve bread, but avocados, too. So we’re gonna put in a little recipe for avocado toast and there’s gonna be an explanation of the strike and sort of what that means and that like, you know, bread and roses. But also it’s in this case avocados, because everybody deserves to have a little luxury, even as we’re kind of trapped in this time.

[Delivery sounds]

[Music: Pele — Hospital Sports]

Tom: Using easily accessible tools like spreadsheets and cellphones, Chico DSA’s mutual aid initiative has already benefited hundreds of people. And in many ways, their work is just getting started. They plan to expand and deepen their efforts to address some of the root causes of the issues and injustices highlighted by this pandemic. 

And they’re not doing it alone. They’ve collaborated with organizations like From the Ground Up and the Butte County Local Food Network to get fresh produce for their deliveries, and with the Chico Housing Action Team for the encampment cleanups. 

Even though all of these projects have been a response to COVID-19, DSA doesn’t want their work to end with the pandemic. Their intention is to seed permanent institutions well into the future, and hopefully, for the community to see beyond their socialist label and recognize what they’re doing as something we can and should do for each other not just in hard times, but in all times. 

Credits

Tom Llewellyn: The Response episode “Resisting COVID-19 with mutual aid in Chico, CA” was written and produced by Robert Raymond, and was executive produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn.

Additional contributions came from Neal Gorenflo and Courtney Pankrat. The graphic art created for this episode by Kane Lynch was inspired by photos taken by Brittany White. The music included Honey Thighs by StrongBoi, Mercury by Ada Lea, and Hospital Sports by Pele.

We would also like to thank Addison and Alex for help with information gathering and fact-checking, all the other volunteers at Chico DSA, and those who are living at Bird Street and Comanche Creek Greenway for letting us into their homes.

The Response is a project of Shareable, a nonprofit media outlet, action network, and consultancy promoting people-powered solutions for the common good. 

Visit Shareable.net to find our full coverage of the People’s COVID-19 Response.

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Support for this project has been provided by the Threshold, Shift, Guerrilla, Clif Bar Family, and Abundant Earth foundations, Shareable’s sponsors including Tipalti, MyTurn, and NearMe, and tax-deductible donations from listeners like you. 

The Response episode “Resisting COVID-19 with mutual aid in Chico, CA” was produced in collaboration with the Upstream Podcast. You can check out all of their documentaries at upstreampodcast.org.

Please get in touch with us by sending an email to theresponse@shareable.net with any questions, comments, or story ideas. We’re also available to speak at your virtual conference, webinar, or other event.

Thanks for listening. 

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