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.
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