Demonstrators converged on a homeless camp in downtown Santa Rosa on Wednesday morning demanding a stop to the weekly sidewalk cleanups and removal of people’s belongings by police and Department of Public Works crews.
It was the first protest since the city began ordering homeless people in November to temporarily leave the sidewalks to allow crews to clean up the sites. The city program includes police, public works crews and the Homeless Outreach Support Team (HOST), led by Catholic Charities, deployed to clear city sidewalks every Wednesday at the Highway 101 underpasses on Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets.
Nearly a dozen people from the advocacy and activist group Homeless Action met at the underpass on Ninth Street holding placards and signs that read, “Sleeping is not a crime” and “Decriminalize Homelessness.”
“The tension in the community has built over the winter,” Adrienne Lauby, an organizer with Homeless Action, said after the demonstration. “The police have had to move people around and have had to move their belongings. The homeless people feel harassed.”
Police and public works’ efforts are not sweeps, said Lt. John Snetsinger. They are simply a weekly cleanup to ensure the underpasses remain sanitary and don’t pose a public health risk.
Notices are given the day before, Snetsinger said, and cleanups do not begin until 9 a.m., giving enough time for people staying on the sidewalks to remove their belongings.
While a first in Santa Rosa, protests against cleanups at homeless camps have become common in many cities, including San Francisco.
When public works and police arrived at the Ninth Street underpass this morning, most homeless people had already cleared out, Snetsinger said. There were no citations or arrests.
But homeless people and their advocates say that essential personal items are thrown away in the process.
“They come and take everything and then run everyone to see if they have warrants,” said Genene Marinello, 46, who spent the night before sleeping at the underpass with her teacup Chihuahua. Marinello says she has lost food and blankets in the cleanups.
“It’s an overarching issue at all times. Blankets and sleeping bags are lifelines,” said Jennielynn Holmes of Catholic Charities, who was at the cleanup trying to get homeless people into the pipeline for services.
“But it’s also important to keep the place clean for people who are staying there,” Holmes added.
Through both the cleanups and police officers’ relationships with people on the streets, the Santa Rosa Police Department provides more referrals to homeless services than any other entity, Holmes said.
But Lauby believes the cleanups should be stopped until encampments are legitimized or permanent housing is available.
“Having almost 2,000 people homeless in Santa Rosa is the real public health concern,” Lauby said, dismissing concerns about health and safety in the underpasses.
At a cleanup on March 15, work crews in yellow vests and protective gear removed a few dead rats from a sewer drain in the Fifth Street underpass, a few feet away from where people slept the night before.
A urine-soaked sleeping bag was thrown away. Snetsinger said it was a biohazard.
At Wednesday’s cleanup, Marinello, who said she avoids shelters, and her companions on the street said they would again sleep on the sidewalk — freshly cleaned — at the underpass on Ninth Street. But they claimed to be short a few items they had had the night before.