Homeless Hill is now just a mountain of garbage after Santa Rosa moved the last remaining occupants of its largest homeless encampment early this week and began the major task of removing an astounding volume and array of detritus left behind by former occupants.
The closely watched cleanup got underway Tuesday with backhoes and contractors piling up debris scattered across the undeveloped city property near the intersection of Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road. The operation began a day after police and outreach workers convinced the remaining dozen or so occupants to leave voluntarily after they were offered vouchers for free taxpayer-funded hotel stays.
“We didn’t have to do anything except be here,” said Santa Rosa Police Lt. John Snetsinger as he surveyed the property Monday with officers.
The planned move was announced early this summer as part of the city’s broader strategy to improve its housing of homeless people. Officials said it went smoothly because occupants were well aware that the city was serious about cleaning up the site, the largest of about 40 known encampments around Santa Rosa.
Officials have said they intend to take a similar approach to other encampments, including those under Highway 101 downtown.
Outreach workers visited the Homeless Hill property for weeks before the cleanup, offering services and explaining that the fire danger created by an encampment in high weeds and brush and accumulation of garbage couldn’t be ignored any longer. Neighbors, including the Congregation Shomrei Torah and other residents, have increased pressure on city officials to address the health and safety issues presented by the camp.
The city coupled the cleanup effort with the addition of 50 beds at the Sam Jones Hall homeless shelter to house people from encampments and help find them permanent housing.
Santa Rosa is spending $500,000 to expand the shelter from 138 to 188 beds year-round and boost its staff and budget to do a better job of helping homeless people find permanent housing.
In the end, about 28 people from Homeless Hill either went to the shelter or a hotel or motel through the voucher program, according to the city.
‘To have a result where 28 of the estimated 50 people accessed services is very positive for this pilot effort,” said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of Housing and Community Services.
It’s unclear where the remainder went.
The promise of a warm bed and the possibility of an apartment of their own convinced Terry and Samantha Jenkins to come down off the hill. Both have numerous health issues and admitted that life on the hill was far more challenging than when they first went up there in the 1990s following a variety of personal and financial travails.
“I’m 62, and camping out like that just ain’t doing it for me anymore,” said Terry Jenkins, who grew up in Santa Rosa and once worked at Hewlett-Packard.
What was once a small group of outsiders who looked after each other became 50 or so “hardcore street people” whose penchant for accumulation of junk turned Homeless Hill into a “sh—hole,” Jenkins said.
The site is strewn with bicycle parts, gas grills, shopping carts, car batteries, propane tanks, couches, water coolers, soiled clothing, shipping pallets, tarps, animal kennels, hand tools and electrical cords.
A woman from a nearby neighborhood visited the hill Monday and left with a chair, saying it had been stolen from her yard.
“It was really hard to see people in the conditions they were in,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.
After police and homeless advocates confirmed the departure of all the occupants, security guards took over Monday evening to ensure no one returned.
Weeks ago, a fire break was cut along the hill. Weeds will be cleared out and trees will be limbed up to about 6 feet to lower the fire danger and improve the sightlines on the hill, city officials said. The work is expected to take about three weeks.
While the number of people who accepted services exceeded her expectations, Holmes said she’s under no illusions that the work is over. The test will now be whether the city’s new focus on housing can actually get people into permanent shelter.
A handful of new staff has already reduced caseloads and allowed social workers to make immediate connections with the people in need, Holmes said. Hiring for those positions is continuting.
Jenkins and his wife both receive disability payments, and he’s hoping they can save up some money and pair it with some of the new city funds to find a small place close enough to a grocery store and the medical care they need.
“We don’t need much,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.