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City resumes efforts to disband Santa Rosa underpass camp

Jacoby House looks for some help to lift a shopping cart full of garbage in to a city provided dumpster for the homeless camped at the Sixth Street over crossing in Santa Rosa, Wednesday Nov. 1, 2017. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

PAUL PAYNE,

Santa Rosa officials said Thursday they will resume efforts to disband the growing homeless encampment at the Sixth Street freeway underpass and move people into temporary shelters.

Over the next two weeks, outreach workers will fan out offering hotel vouchers and bed space in the city’s Sam L. Jones Hall to the 75 people living in tents that sprang up last year.

At the same time, to discourage people from staying there, police will start handing out more tickets to those who violate city ordinances by blocking sidewalks or urinating in public.

“It’s really sad,” Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s housing and community services manager. “It’s sad for people living there and sad for neighbors and businesses.”

Earlier efforts to close the camp by mid-October were postponed by the devastating wildfires that broke out Oct. 8.

Now, with recovery underway, officials will renew the campaign begun this summer to remove the considerable blight and find shelter for a segment of the city’s estimated 1,900 homeless people.

Homelessness has become an increasingly visible problem in Sonoma County and throughout the state in recent years, spurred on by the escalating cost of housing. The problem was aggravated in Santa Rosa by the construction of a commuter train linking Sonoma and Marin counties that closed long-established camps near the tracks and waterways.

To address the problem, the city has spent about $2 million on planning and programs. It launched a pilot program this year to inventory dozens of camps and close the largest — an encampment south of Farmers Lane known as Homeless Hill. A majority of the inhabitants were put in shelters. The Highway 101 underpass camp was next on a list of sites be disbanded.

Those efforts were sidelined by the October fires, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed 23 people in the county.

Evacuees flooded Red Cross shelters along with about 70 homeless people who availed themselves of free meals and warm beds. Before the shelters closed last week, those people were placed in more permanent housing under a partnership with Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

Now, officials hope to coax underpass dwellers into hotels or winter beds at Sam Jones Hall. And the city has resumed a weekly cleanup of the underpass with sanitation and health workers.

The largest encampment has spilled over into two adjacent underpasses since the disaster, drawing complaints from neighbors and merchants about trespassing, drug use and unsanitary conditions. Some homeless people report being burned out of old encampments and having no place to go.

A goal is to close the Sixth Street camp and relocate its occupants sometime before the end of this month.

The move couldn’t come too soon for neighbors, who have grown worried about the risk of a Hepatitis A breakout, similar to what has plagued other California cities with large encampments, and killed 20 people in San Diego.

Residents have converged on City Council meetings, blaming elected officials for the situation. A neighborhood meeting is planned for Thursday at the De Turk Round Barn.

“I plead with you to step up and deal with this ever-increasing public health risk,” West End neighbor Allen Thomas said in a letter to city officials.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.