Trail's homeless camps pose dilemma

  • Cal Lengel hangs out at his camp under a bridge along the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, August 15, 2012. Lengel, who has been homeless for four years, has been camping in this location for five days with his girlfriend.

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.

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