Santa Rosa cleared out downtown homeless encampments under Highway 101 this week after they swelled dramatically following last month’s wildfires and recent wet weather.
This time, however, city officials say they’re not going to let the camps return, taking a tougher approach to the issue in response to a chorus of complaints from nearby businesses owners and residents.
“We’re going to be strictly enforcing the laws related to blocking the sidewalk and urinating in public,” said Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, head of the city’s downtown enforcement team.
The city’s more forceful approach has triggered strong opposition from homeless activists who turned out during the cleanup, filming police interactions with people and in some cases interfering with efforts to evaluate people’s housing needs, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s housing and community services manager.
“Some of the advocates who were there were disruptive and interfering with the outreach efforts,” Kuykendall said.
The latest phase of the city’s effort to clean up high-risk homeless encampments — viewed by many as health, safety and environmental hazards — has sparked vocal and at times vitriolic condemnation of the city.
Mayor Chris Coursey and his council colleagues got an earful Tuesday from angry activists, one of whom, Merlin Davis, called them “fascists” and gave the council an upraised middle finger as he was escorted out for disrupting the meeting.
“You are stripping people of the only cover between them and the freezing night sky,” Davis said. “It is cruel and unusual.”
But residents of surrounding neighborhoods appreciated the city’s efforts to clean out the encampments, which many felt was long overdue. Allen Thomas, who is active in the West End neighborhood association, has long said it is unsafe and unacceptable to allow people to block the sidewalks.
“We’re very happy to have our streets and sidewalks back,” Thomas said Friday.
The city has been regularly monitoring the Highway 101 overpasses at Fifth, Sixth and Ninth streets for months, regularly sending outreach workers there to steer people toward housing, police to enforce laws, and public works crews to clean out the accumulated garbage.
But homeless residents always returned — often hours later — drawn by the overpasses’ shelter from the weather, close proximity to free food and other homeless services, and the safety in numbers offered by the encampments.
Their numbers began swelling after the city cleared out and fenced off the long-time encampment on city property at the intersection of Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road, known as Homeless Hill.
That cleanup was done in conjunction with a 50-bed expansion of the city’s homeless shelter and an intensive effort to get people into housing.
That effort had some success, but the camps got even bigger after the Tubbs fire swept through the city, displacing people from other encampments, including one on Bicentennial Way. As recently as last week, an estimated 80 people were camped out under the overpasses.
“The vast majority of people realized that it had gotten out of control,” said Officer Brian Sinigiani, who felt the cleanup went fairly smoothly.
As he cleaned up some garbage on Sixth Street on Friday, Ron Edwards likened the swelling of the underpass population to the “clogging of an artery.”