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Trail's homeless camps pose dilemma


It was a lucky day for Moses Churchfield.

A $5 bill that someone had dropped bought him two beers that he enjoyed in the shade of the Olive Park footbridge along downtown Santa Rosa's Prince Memorial Greenway.

Unbothered by the clatter of rollerblades and bicycles on the uneven footbridge overhead, Churchfield, 35, engaged peacefully in his usual pastime — "loitering" with his 1?-year-old pup, Nugget — before heading off along Santa Rosa Creek for another beer and maybe lunch at the nearby St. Vincent de Paul Society dining room.

A newcomer to the system of interconnected trails that links Santa Rosa to Sebastopol, the Pennsylvania native has been quick to key in on the advantages the trail network provides to those with nowhere else to go: Ready cover, easy access to services and a buffer from "life on the street" that offers a more tranquil, if covert, existence.

He is among dozens of homeless people who camp out along the Santa Rosa Creek and Joe Rodota trails, some staying weeks or months, others for decades. One couple whom Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver first met in 1990 raised at least one child in trailside encampments. Churchfield, recently arrived from Ukiah via Oregon, plans to stay through winter.

But the entrenched community of homeless residents along the trails raises health and safety questions in a transportation corridor heavily used by runners, recreational bicyclists, pedestrians, bike commuters and more.

Encampments along the trails are strewn with garbage and debris — soiled bedding and clothes, food containers, broken glass, bags and overturned grocery carts — causing environmental and aesthetic concerns.

Trash and human waste appear to be the most serious problems, particularly where camps abut creeks and, in Sebastopol, the sensitive Laguna de Santa Rosa.

A Sebastopol city effort to clean out encampments along the Rodota Trail last year turned up "very concerning" conditions, Weaver said.

"There was a lot of human feces in waterways ... and then trash galore," he said.

The homeless presence has created both fear and understanding along the trails.

A Roseland-area mother, Ang?ica Rivera, who was walking on the Rodota Trail with three children near Dutton Avenue and Highway 12 this week, said a man climbed out of the bushes last year and followed her, frightening her, until she got out her cellphone and made a call, sending him running. She stayed off the trail for about a year, but still worried someone will try to take her purse, she said.

But other trail users said they're at peace with the homeless they see, saying many encampments are cleared out during daylight in any case, with folks returning home by night.

"It is an issue, but I think we can share," said Sarah Hadler, who commutes between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa on her bike several times a week and, as coordinator for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition's Safe Routes to School program, has heard concerns raised about the homeless on the trails.

"I always wave to everyone," she said. "I feel like it's 'our' path, and they're using it as much as we are."

Still, there are complaints and intermittent enforcement problems.

Alistair Bleifuss, who oversees the Santa Rosa creek stewardship program, said more than 200 abandoned and active encampments were cleared out along creeks citywide in 2011.

City crews collected 355 cubic yards of trash that year, he said.

"It's an ongoing challenge out there to keep that thing maintained the way we want, which is relatively clean and secure for people who use the trail," said Sonoma County Parks Operations Manager Bert

Whitaker, whose division oversees most of the Joe Rodota Trail.

The homeless population along the trail system rises and falls according to the season, the health of the economy and the availability of seasonal jobs, said city and county parks, public works and law enforcement personnel, who share jurisdiction over the trails.

A homeless census conducted in 2009 counted 11 homeless individuals in the census track that takes in most of the Joe Rodota Trail, said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, who coordinates the biennial census. The January 2011 census counted 23. What's happened in the 18 months since is uncertain, she said.

Weaver figures there are eight to 20 homeless people along the trails in Sebastopol at a given time.

Abundant vegetation, lush trees and vast expanses of blackberry bushes provide opportunities for campers to carve out private spaces, as do neighboring vacant lots and industrial areas, although much of their presence clearly spills onto private property.

Police and sheriff's officials said officers patrol the trails when time permits and routinely respond to complaints and service calls on such issues as trespassing.

A county ranger also patrols part of the trail daily, Whitaker said, sometimes asking homeless individuals to move along or clean up their things.

On the whole, officials said they're trying to balance humanitarian considerations with the need to prevent blight on an important public thoroughfare and private property.

But from time to time, upticks in population or an unforeseen hot spot require attention and a sweep of encampments to clear out waste and bring some order to the situation, often with a coordinated effort involving city and county resources from varying departments.

When that happens, authorities said, they provide as much notice as possible, posting ordinances in the area and alerting individuals about the time they have to remove their property before crews clear out the camps.

Most of the time, the campers set up again or find another place nearby, they said.

"We spend a lot of time moving people around," Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Rich Celli said.

"It's an ongoing thing that we just have to stay on," Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Brown said.

Problems include used hypodermic needles, illegal campfires, cut fencing and occasional thefts. In Sebastopol earlier this week, a man was arrested after police found him charging his cellphone and powering his encampment with an exterior outlet and an extension cord.

Campers massed in a group or infringing on the trailway may intimidate other users, Whitaker said.

One woman said she'd been chased by a dog and had loud, foul language hurled her way.

Ron Lunsford of Petaluma, celebrating his 61st birthday with a morning bike ride, said he'd seen a pair of what appeared to be homeless people picking up trash along the trail, "which was pretty cool."

Like Churchfield, a sometimes homeless Sebastopol man named Mike and his friend Herbie, a current Rodota trail camper, said the folks who leave waste and garbage behind ruin it for everyone else.

"I hate the pigs," said Mike, 57, who declined to give his last name.

Another man, Jim, who came out of the vines and bushes near Dutton Avenue pushing a shopping cart with a stuffed chimp in the infant seat, offered this: "You've got to behave," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)