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.
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