Hordes of rats scurried from the cracks along Santa Rosa’s Sixth Street highway underpass as public works crews blasted the sidewalk at the city’s most visible homeless encampment with a high-pressure water hose.
Volunteers worked alongside them to clear the grimy, urine-soaked stretch, collecting buckets of trash and human waste left behind by 30 to 40 people who moved their belongings aside for the weekly cleanup.
As the sidewalks dried, the squatters returned, bringing a tattered patchwork of tents and blankets that has grown since they began occupying the Highway 101 underpass a year ago.
“I like it here,” said David Sjoberg, 38, as he heaved a mass of bike parts and other possessions onto the curb. “It’s the only way I know how to live freely.”
But the squalid encampment within blocks of homeless services and touristy Railroad Square could soon be coming to an end. City officials are planning to close the area to overnight camping next month and move the transients into temporary shelters.
It will be the second such effort in Santa Rosa since August, when the city — which has an estimated 1,900 homeless people — disbanded a trash and vermin-infested haunt off Farmers Lane on the western edge of Bennett Valley. About 70 percent of those on Homeless Hill have since received housing and none have returned, officials said.
Now the city is turning its attention to Sixth Street, which is drawing complaints from neighbors tired of running the gauntlet of blocked sidewalks and bad smells.
Mayor Chris Coursey said the city can’t continue to allow it to exist or let homeless people live in such unhealthy, unsafe conditions.
“We’re not throwing anyone out into the cold,” Coursey said. “We’re going in there and offering services and shelter to everyone.”
Details of the planned closure, which city officials hope to complete by Nov. 1, will be discussed at 6 p.m. Thursday in a public meeting at the De Turk Round Barn.
Homeless rights advocates assailed the city’s approach, accusing officials of evicting homeless people from one spot, only to have them move to another. Gregory Fearon, a member of Homeless Action, a Santa Rosa activist group, said the city has failed to provide a permanent housing solution despite spending more than $2 million a year on the problem.
“This whole whack-a-mole thing isn’t working,” Fearon said.
Activists decrying a lack of portable toilets for transients descended on Tuesday’s City Council meeting, toting bottles filled with yellow liquid they said represented urine. Many called for the establishment of city-sanctioned camps. The move came as Santa Cruz, San Diego and Los Angeles deal with hepatitis outbreaks in large homeless camps.
“You keep using phrases like clearing out and cleaning out like these people are trash,” one activist, Adrian Shader, told the council. “They are human beings.”
Although the city’s homeless population is down, it has become more conspicuous over the past few years because of several factors.
Cleanup projects have forced many homeless people from hidden campgrounds at creeks, in storm drains and along the Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit tracks. Also, recent development of vacant land has sent transients in search of new places.
The result is more camping in parks and public places.
Last year, many escaped the wet winter by congregating under Highway 101 at Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets, between the Santa Rosa Plaza and Railroad Square. The locations were popular in part because of their proximity to free food and other services offered by nonprofits including Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul and Redwood Gospel Mission.
Over time, transients said they were driven out of the Fifth and Ninth street underpasses by police and forced to converge on Sixth Street. The numbers crept up when some Homeless Hill occupants moved to the underpass.
Now, bedrolls, billowing garbage bags and bicycles in various stages of assembly line both sides of the street, covering the sidewalk and spilling into adjacent lots. The yard of an abandoned building at Sixth and Davis streets is littered with trash and is a makeshift bathroom, drawing flies and rodents.
It’s an unsavory spectacle for residents of the West End neighborhood who must pass it to get their kids to school or go downtown.
“It’s pretty gnarly,” said Terri Noll, a retired furniture maker who lives nearby. “And it’s unsanitary. You pass by and they wander out into the street like there isn’t a street there. It’s unsafe for them, too.”
Another resident, former city planning commissioner and development consultant Allen Thomas, said he’s frustrated the encampment was allowed to get started. He blamed a lax approach by city officials and criticized charities for mismanaging services.
“If you opened a bar and this happened the city would come down on you,” Thomas said.
But city officials say it’s a complex problem with no simple solutions, one that is vexing towns across the state. They are responding by offering hotel vouchers and temporary beds in the city’s main shelter, Sam Jones Hall.
“It’s more complicated than coming and cleaning people out,” said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s housing and community services manager. “We have to coordinate services. Otherwise, they are just dispersed and we solve nothing.”
Jennielynn Holmes, senior director of shelter and housing at Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, said more beds are expected to open soon at Sam Jones Hall to accommodate Sixth Street underpass dwellers. House rules on sobriety and pets have been relaxed to make the shelter more attractive, she said. Also, Catholic Charities may open its Morgan Street drop-in center in the afternoon to give homeless people an alternative to hanging out at the bridge, Holmes said.
“Our laser focus now is to get these people into homes so everybody is happy,” she said.
Some remain skeptical the plan will work. A nonprofit employee who identified himself only as Thomas said many will opt to stay in the area, near social services.
“They have freedom of choice and they are not going to shelters,” Thomas said.
In the meantime, police are answering complaints, arresting homeless people who are drunk or doing drugs and writing tickets to those who block the sidewalk. Sgt. Jonathan Wolf of the downtown enforcement team said 30 sidewalk obstruction tickets were handed out during a weeklong period earlier this month.
And every Wednesday morning, city crews conduct a cleanup that includes dumping a bioenymatic solution on the sidewalk to kill fecal bacteria and spraying it with a high-pressure hose.
Homeless people break camp first, temporarily moving their belongings down the street, as volunteers sweep in to collect trash and city workers vacuum debris from the storm drains. As water rolls across the sidewalk, rats run out of cracks in the cement and head for high ground.
“Some ran right between my feet,” said city worker Aaron Brisbi as he packed his truck and drove away.
Homeless people waiting nearby watched as the sun shone down, drying the sidewalk. One by one, they dragged tents and other belongings back into place.
“They shut down Homeless Hill,” said Sjoberg, who goes by Bicycle Dave. “Where do they expect us to go?’
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.