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Jennifer Badolato’s banged-up red Nissan is more than just a car. It’s her home.

The Santa Rosa woman doesn’t make enough money in her job at Walmart to afford an apartment in Sonoma County, where rents have skyrocketed over the past four years to an average of $1,700 a month.

So Badolato, who became homeless in November, lives on the road, driving from spot to spot, spending her paycheck on gas, food and the occasional hotel room, “just to stay sane.”

“It’s been hard,” said the 44-year-old woman as she waited with a dozen others outside a downtown Santa Rosa nonprofit offering free breakfast bars and hot showers. “But it’s better to live in a car than on these streets.”

Santa Rosa is swarming with homeless people who have been pushed from hidden encampments into startling public view. With affordable housing scarce and shelters at maximum capacity, many are turning up at storefronts and on median strips, in city parks and under freeway overpasses.

Police are flooded with complaints about public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling and loud fights at all hours. In May, a homeless man was killed in an attack at Rae Park across the street from City Hall that police said was fueled by a dispute over cigarettes or pot.

The problem has become so bad that next month, the Santa Rosa City Council will consider declaring a homeless emergency as part of a slate of measures intended to get people off the streets.

“The indisputable fact is we have a serious issue with homelessness, not just downtown but citywide,” said Santa Rosa police Lt. John Cregan, the department’s point man on the topic. “And we’re going to have to do something about it.”

Officials estimate 2,000 people are living without permanent shelter in Sonoma County as a whole, a homelessness rate higher than San Francisco and three times the national average of about 18 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.

Although overall numbers are down from the previous year, visibility has increased and there’s a perception among residents and downtown merchants that homelessness is actually on the rise.

Homeless people who once lived in hidden encampments along creeks and rail lines have been forced out by waterway cleanups and the arrival of a new regional commuter train.

Others believe homeless people are coming from outside the area to take advantage of better transient services. But according to an official estimate, about 85 percent of the county’s homeless population were last housed locally and 55 percent have lived in the county 10 years or more.

What’s being done

In response, city and county officials have teamed up with nonprofits such as Catholic Charities to tackle the problem head-on.

They opened a Santa Rosa Avenue hotel to homeless veterans earlier this year, adding about 100 beds to existing shelters housing about 1,000 people.

Teams of social workers have fanned out, offering services and putting people on waiting lists for temporary housing. Santa Rosa this year doubled its annual spending on homelessness programs to $1.6 million and is planning construction of thousands of affordable housing units in the next five years.

At its July 19 meeting, the council will vote on emergency provisions that could loosen camping restrictions in cars and on private and public lands, including some city parks. Also on the agenda, council members will discuss placing a bond on the November ballot that could raise up to $100 million to be spent on housing the homeless.

A poll conducted earlier this year showed strong support for such a measure, City Councilwoman Julie Combs said.

“The city has a lot of needs and not enough money for them all,” said Combs, a member of the council’s subcommittee on homelessness. “We’re aware this is a need, and we’ve made it a priority.”

Sonoma County isn’t alone in grappling with the problem. More than 116,000 people statewide are said to be homeless, with about 60 percent living outdoors. Officials in urban areas such as Los Angeles are reporting double-digit increases in homelessness with an expectation the worst is yet to come.

Lawmakers this month came up with a sweeping proposal to spend $2 billion for construction of permanent housing for the state’s poorest residents. Another $200 million may be allocated for housing subsidies.

In Sonoma County, the problem comes amid a housing shortage that is driving up rents and creating waiting lists to get into temporary housing. At Catholic Charities’ Samuel L. Jones Hall, the county’s largest adult shelter, the wait is almost a month as people stay longer to look for permanent dwellings.

“We didn’t have waiting lists four years ago,” said Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ director of shelter and housing. “We can’t get people into housing like we used to.”

Advocates pin their hopes in part on increased rental subsidies allowing homeless people to move into regular housing. Last year, nearly 600 people in the county got off the streets that way, Holmes said.

“That’s how we’re going to loosen up this bottleneck,” Holmes said.

But it’s unclear if that will work with vacancy rates around 1 percent.

Daily needs met

Many homeless are drawn to downtown Santa Rosa for free meals and other services from nonprofits near the freeway.

Catholic Charities’ Morgan Street drop-in center is a hub of early morning activity as people line up for breakfast snacks, showers or to check mail. They roll up on bicycles, lugging clothes in plastic garbage bags, and chat on cellphones or bum cigarettes as they wait their turns.

Badolato, who arrived late in her Nissan, sat at a table out front, smoking a small cigar, when her name was called to take a shower.

“Can I have two towels?” she asked a volunteer, who also provided soap and shampoo. “I waited so long.”

At 11:30 a.m., a crowd grows a few blocks away in front of St. Vincent de Paul’s Wilson Street kitchen where up to 200 free lunches are served, seven days a week. The menu varies from Chinese food to spaghetti, and people are allowed seconds or thirds if it is available.

It’s a noisy scene that moves into the West Seventh Street neighborhood, where people smoke or talk about job prospects before disbanding after the kitchen closes at 12:30 p.m.

“It’s always a good spread here,” said John “Jeff” Rountree, 62, after chowing down on the Monday special — burritos. “The price is right.”

Dinners are available from 7 to 7:30 p.m. a block away at the Redwood Gospel Mission, which also has a temporary shelter.

On weekends, two churches on Mendocino Avenue serve breakfast on alternate days and other meals can be had at the Living Room women’s facility on Cleveland Avenue.

“There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry,” said a gap-toothed homeless woman at the Morgan Street center who identified herself as Needa Nickel, 62. “If you have to be homeless, this is the place.”

Between meals, many kick back in parks or along creek beds strewn with cardboard. Others beg for loose change outside stores on bustling Fourth Street.

Thomas Kirkpatrick, just in from San Francisco, plopped down in front of Treehorn Books to try a gimmick he said served him well in the big city.

He placed five plastic cups on the sidewalk, each labeled with items he wanted — food, beer, LSD, THC and sex. In theory, generous passers-by will be tickled by the shtick and give more.

“LSD makes the most,” said the 48-year-old man, squinting into the morning sun. “Food makes the least.”

But the cups remained empty by midmorning as pedestrians filed by, mostly trying to avoid eye contact.

Kirkpatrick said he was on his way to his native Oregon when he stopped in Santa Rosa for the night. He was surprised to get into the Redwood Gospel Mission shelter so fast and took advantage of a free breakfast the next morning.

“San Francisco is too crowded. I needed to get out of that place,” he said. “It’s less congested here. You actually feel you’re going to get the things you need.”

A few doors down, bar owner John Ryan was shaking his head at the proliferation of transients he said has “overrun” downtown. They dump his trash cans into the street searching for returnable bottles, defecate in doorways and yell at him when he won’t give them money.

Ryan, the owner of Sweet Spot Pub and Grill, said it’s the worst he has seen in his 12 years in business. He called on police to step up bike and foot patrols in the downtown area and reopen a substation a block away.

“Life is tough. I don’t know what the answers are,” Ryan said. “Maybe build a camp outside of town.”

Homeless after dark

Police say things can get dicey after dark. Those who can’t get into shelters or don’t want to stay up late, congregate on sidewalks or walk all night to stay warm. Many are secretive about where they lay their heads while others flop down beneath overpasses, their bundled bodies lying in plain view.

Drinking or mental illness fuel frequent fights. Disturbances keep other homeless people awake.

After a restless few hours under the Sixth Street overpass, a homeless woman who gave only her first name, Julie, crawled out of the dust and dirt, packed her belongings onto her bicycle trailer and headed to Morgan Street to get a bite to eat.

She said neighbors bickered all night, their deranged shouts mingling with the din of freeway traffic.

“The crazies started fighting with each other about midnight,” said the 40-year-old Santa Rosa native, who recently lost her job at Taco Bell. “It wouldn’t have been so bad if they would just shut up.”

Another homeless man, Tony Oerding-Pierce, 36, said he felt lucky to finally be in Catholic Charities’ family shelter on A Street.

He and his wife, Nicole Sweeney, along with their 16-month-old son, Chays, couch-surfed for more than a month while waiting for an opening. They were on the verge of sleeping in a rented storage facility when they got the call.

Over a free chicken and rice lunch at the nearby St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, the former Montgomery High School student talked about applying for cooking jobs in the hopes of someday being able to afford his own apartment.

“This is a minor hiccup,” he said as Sweeney fed their son a piece of chicken. “Once we get on our feet, we’ll get going. We are highly motivated.”

But breaking the cycle is difficult. About 10 percent of the homeless population are not ready for services, advocates said.

Daniel Maldonado, 56, who is disabled, simply can’t afford to stay in a home. Maldonado, on his second, six-month stay at Sam Jones Hall, said he would return to the downtown streets when his time was up this week.

“I’m dreading it,” he said as he lay on a bed in the air-conditioned dormitory. “It’s all right here.”

For Badolato, her 17-year-old Nissan is everything. After a string of bad luck, her dad kicked her out of his house after Thanksgiving and she can’t make enough in her $11.85-an-hour job to afford her own place.

So she lives with her adult son, Shebry Franklin III, in their red sedan, parking mostly outside a Starbucks to take advantage of free Wi-Fi and to use the bathroom, she said.

“He does all the driving,” Badolato said. “I sleep in the passenger seat. The trunk is filled with our clothes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.