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Angela Solis doesn't consider herself homeless, although she has lived the past year with her boyfriend, Jorge Robles, under a tarp along the railroad tracks near Guerneville Road in west Santa Rosa.

Everything the couple needs is inside their encampment: a barbecue for cooking; chairs to entertain company; a mattress among the bushes; and food bowls to feed their black Lab, Gordo.

The pair are among the last to cling to the strip of land along the tracks after a recent crackdown on homeless camps in the area. But Solis knows that soon, they, too, will be dislodged from the place they call home.

They may join the dozens of others who, with nowhere else to go, have ended up on the streets of downtown Santa Rosa and drawn the ire of merchants and shoppers.

For Solis, homelessness is a state of mind.

"I don't think we're homeless; we're houseless," said Solis, 44. "This is our home. This is where I eat and sleep. I'm going to miss it when we have to move."

Robles, 54, has called the tracks home for seven years. He has seen camps like his destroyed, especially in the past year as construction work to improve the tracks for commuter-rail service ramped up.

"Since they had the idea to get the train going, they have started harassing people a lot more," he said. "Pretty much all the other people have moved out except me."

Robles said police officers in the past week have asked him to leave the land. These tracks are owned by the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority, and trespassing is illegal.

Jon Kerruish, the SMART access-control manager, said the agency has spent $100,000 to clean up the tracks and remove homeless encampments.

"As we finish construction, enforcement will increase," he said.

This means that Robles and Solis will be displaced, a fact that Robles begrudgingly accepts.

"I'll move out," he said. "I want to find a safe place for me and my dog. I'll move out, but not because they tell me."

The railway construction and a recent crackdown on homeless camps — Santa Rosa police swept 45 camps last week searching for parole or probation violators — are among the reasons why homeless people have become more visible, especially in downtown Santa Rosa, say business owners and advocates for the homeless.

The changing weather, prison reorganization, low vacancy rates in affordable housing units and an unprecedented lack of beds in homeless shelters also could be contributing to a more desperate and aggressive homeless population, experts say.

Business owners fear that aggressive panhandling discourages shoppers from visiting downtown, while homeless advocates and city leaders search for long-term solutions to provide services to some of the city's most vulnerable residents.

"This is a local problem with local people," said Georgia Berland, executive officer of Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless. "These are our neighbors. They are not transients."

They gather in front of Peet's Coffee on Fourth Street to play music. They pass the day sitting on benches in Old Courthouse Square and Railroad Square. They sleep in doorways of downtown businesses with awnings that offer shelter during harsh weather.

Each year, as conditions turn chilly and damp, homeless residents who have been camping in parks and rural areas outside the city come into downtown to be closer to services, get out of the elements and implore holiday shoppers, who may be in a more giving mood, for money.

"I think that seasonally there's an increase in panhandling as there's an increase in people shopping downtown," said Jeff Gilman, executive director of the Redwood Gospel Mission, which operates four Santa Rosa homeless shelters. "Instead of giving money, we need to address the root causes of homelessness."

Occasionally, business owners or shoppers have had aggressive or threatening interactions with homeless people. Jacob Naber, owner of Arrigoni's Cafe on Fourth Street, said he has found homeless people sleeping or defecating in front of his restaurant. Aggressive panhandlers have scared off customers, he said.

"It makes the city look bad," he said. "It creates a very unpleasant atmosphere."

The owner of a downtown clothing store, who did not wish to be named, said she recently has had to call the police because of a few unruly people. An unkempt man in grungy clothes was belligerent and yelling in her store. Another time, a woman was writhing around on the pavement in front of the shop. And once, during a drug deal in front of the store, one of the people yelled at shoppers, she said.

"Would you want to get a cup of coffee and window shop downtown if you could be accosted?" she said.

Pete Mogannam, owner of 4th Street Market & Deli, said he regularly confronts aggressive panhandlers. He tries to avoid involving law enforcement, when possible.

"In general, I have respect for them," he said. "If I see someone causing trouble, I jump on it. It's really sad when you see someone come in and buy alcohol then go out and grab food out of the garbage can."

As Mogannam spoke, Floyd Griffith came into the shop and bought a 24-ounce can of Budweiser then walked across the street to Old Courthouse Square to drink. Griffith, 55, a Santa Rosa native and Navy veteran, started drinking heavily after being released from prison, where he did time for assault and battery among other charges.

Griffith said he has been living hard on the streets of downtown Santa Rosa, sleeping in doorways, since 2004 and has seen a change in the homeless population over the past decade.

"I do see a lot of new faces on the streets," he said. "There are many peaceful places for a homeless person in Santa Rosa. I love to sit in front of coffee houses and just enjoy the quiet of the day. I sing, I draw, and I panhandle."

Santa Rosa has an ordinance that prohibits panhandling within 15 feet of entrances of banks and ATMs, in public parking lots after dark and on public buses or within outdoor and indoor dining areas.

Camping downtown also is illegal, said Sgt. Brad Conners, who heads the SRPD downtown unit. He said that prison realignment, which moved inmates from state prisons into county jails and onto the streets, has resulted in more people with criminal pasts ending up among the homeless population. This may account for the perceived increase in aggressive behavior, he said.

"There are folks out on the street now that historically would have been incarcerated," he said.

Jerry Gilbert, who has been selling hotdogs in Old Courthouse Square for two decades, said he has noticed an increase in the homeless population downtown over the past five years.

"They come and sleep a little on the grass and beg for spare change," he said. "It hurts business. Our downtown is a real tolerant community. I think there's a lot of compassion. That's probably what draws the homeless people."

If the issue of homelessness isn't addressed, downtown businesses will suffer as shoppers head to Montgomery Village, Coddingtown or big box stores where they feel they won't be harassed, said Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

"It is a concern if merchants and customers feel unsafe," he said. "Homelessness is a difficult social problem. We need to be sensitive to the issue and figure out how to manage it so that merchants and shoppers can feel comfortable."

Data show that homelessness in Sonoma County has increased since the recession in 2009. A countywide census of the homeless population showed a 25 percent jump from 2009 to 2011. This year's census counted 4,280 homeless people in the county on a single day, which is a slight drop from 2011 but still represents nearly 10,000 people who are homeless in the county throughout the year.

The January survey recorded a 20 percent drop in homeless families from the 2011 count.

"We're really encouraged about that, but that means more single adults on the streets," said Jenny Abramson, coordinator for Sonoma County Continuum of Care, a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits and business organizations working to combat homelessness. The coalition manages a $2.8 million annual federal grant for homeless programs.

The half-dozen homeless shelters in Santa Rosa are at capacity, and waiting lists are long, said Dave Gouin, the city's director of economic development and housing. The National Guard Armory emergency shelter hasn't been used in years because of the high cost.

Compounding the problem is the lack of affordable housing units in the city. Vacancy rates are at just one percent. Those in shelters are waiting to get into affordable housing, which will free up beds in shelters. But with rents for market-rate housing at an all-time high, few people are relocating. This means those at the bottom of the chain, who are living on the streets, have nowhere to go.

"There aren't a lot of vacancies out there," Gouin said. "A step to addressing the problem is creating more opportunities for affordable housing."

City leaders are working to address the problem of homelessness, mayor Scott Bartley said. The city is convening a study session on Dec. 10 with affordable-housing developers and homeless-service providers to address the lack of affordable housing and shelter beds.

"There's no easy answer to this one," Bartley said. "It's been a challenge for as long as I can remember."

Catholic Charities, which operates three homeless shelters and a drop-in service center in Santa Rosa, has a 90-person waiting list for its adult shelter, said shelter director Jennielynn Holmes.

She said people are getting desperate as they enter the cold season. Thirty people die on the streets in Sonoma County each year, many due to harsh weather, according to the California Department of Public Health.

"We have an unprecedented waiting list," Holmes said. "The lack of affordable housing is creating a huge bottleneck. People are going into crisis mode now that it is getting cold and rainy."

Holmes said service providers need more resources to tackle homelessness. There is evidence that, with some help, people can get off the streets.

Kim Smith, 46, became homeless for the first time after she lost her job with the Ukiah School District in 2008. She bounced around shelters in Ukiah and Fort Bragg and spent many nights sleeping in her truck. She described how difficult it was to make herself presentable and search for jobs with no place to shower or wash her clothes.

"I was just surviving," she said. "My confidence was really low. I didn't even want to make eye contact with anyone."

She came to Santa Rosa in May and landed a bed at the Samuel Jones shelter. A few months later, she moved into a transitional housing program and got a job as a receptionist.

"I feel good about myself again," she said. "Ever since I came to the shelter, everything has been easier. I know how hard it is to climb up out of that rabbit hole, especially trying to do it without any help. I have hope now, which I never had before."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)

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