Jesica Giannola graduated from our 2023 California community CaseMaking cohort, through TheCaseMade’s partnership with the Kaiser Permanente and Housing California. She is a housing case manager for Chico Housing Action Team, former Chico city council candidate, and recipient of a 2023 Public Voices Fellowship on Homelessness from UCSF’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative and The OpEd Project.
We talked to her about Chico, a Northern California town where refugees from the devastating 2018 Camp Fire continue to experience homelessness, too many people have trouble affording stable housing, and tensions over housing and homelessness often run high. At the same time, Giannola and others are working hard to build will for housing for everyone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What do you love about where you live?
Chico is one of the neatest small big towns in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got a lot going for us: natural beauty and resources, a state university, shopping, restaurants, parks, the creek. I love that, and I love that people do care about each other here. After the Camp Fire, there was a huge outpouring of care from everyone—at least for the first few days.
What’s your aspiration for Chico?
I aspire for us to have a more concentrated effort to create more housing for everyone, with options for every income and circumstance. And to come together now, like we did right after the fire when everyone saw the great need in our community. Since then, animosity against our unhoused neighbors has increased. Housing advocates have been working so hard and so long, we’re hitting burnout and massive depression. I would love to see that turned around. I have adult children, and they can’t even live in this city because of the cost of housing.
What are some of the dominant narratives you’re trying to change and obstacles you’re navigating in Chico?
There’s a misconception that there’s plenty of help for the unhoused, plenty of shelters. And since the fire, there’s been a lot of division. There’s hatred toward the unhoused and threats. I’ve been in encampments with unhoused neighbors when people screamed slurs and threw water bottles from cars.
How are you making the case for your vision of abundant housing in Chico?
I grew up in extreme poverty, and we didn’t have housing for the majority of my childhood. As an adult escaping my ex, I ended up in a shelter with my two children. I also was homeless for a month when I was buying my home, living in a motel. My family had to support me.
I’m able to articulate, through those experiences, the needs unhoused people have, the feelings they experience, and the need for more housing. Being able to describe what it’s like touches people.
I genuinely want to see less conflict and more help. For some people it’s hard to talk to someone they disagree with. I’m good at that role. I can have an equal conversation and respect them as a person. We have to find common ground and recognize and honor each other’s experiences. Our common concern is people being unhoused. We need to agree on policies that help make everyone’s situation better. And we can.
I’ve gone to city council monthly for years. Whenever I speak there or to the county supervisor or make a comment online, someone reaches out and says, “I saw what you said. I agree with you.”
A lot of people want to do something and they don’t know what to do. They’re waiting and watching for someone to step forward to offer hope and direction and be a role model.
Would you share your best CaseMaking moment with us?
It had to do with reminding my city council members of the power they have. They often say, “We’re not in the business of housing.” I told them, “But you are in the business of zoning, and changing zoning to be more flexible will help increase affordable housing in our area. Unless we do something different, people won’t be able to live in this city. I know you want your family close, people off the street, and to use the power you have.”
What’s your favorite CaseMaking tool?
I like reminding folks of their investment in whatever change I’m proposing. How it impacts them and how they can be involved. I love asking what they would like to see, what they feel needs to be changed. When I hear them say something that connects to something I’m asking for, that’s the bridge. Once you can connect with someone on one or two things, that opens the door to other areas of collaboration.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on state-level policy change. The governor isn’t aware of how few resources counties have. He’s trying to help with laws that make it easier to build housing, but the county doesn’t have vouchers for residents to pay for it. If the governor was aware of the need, that could change. Also, people with convictions or bad credit can’t get housing. That needs to be a policy change. Even if someone has a criminal record or bad credit, they still need housing.