SAN FRANCISCO — Sonoma County’s affordable housing agency was directed Thursday by a federal judge to consider delaying its planned closure of a large southwest Santa Rosa homeless encampment by another three weeks.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria floated the proposal after several hours of testimony regarding the roughly 100 people living in tents behind the Dollar Tree store in Roseland. Chhabria gave the county’s Community Development Commission, which owns the land where the tent village is located, until 10 a.m. Friday to respond to his proposal.
The commission still can’t enforce its eviction notice at the Sebastopol Road homeless camp in the meantime, Chhabria ruled.
County officials wanted to start shutting down the tent village Tuesday, but attorneys representing encampment residents and their advocates sued last week to block the move, prompting Thursday’s hearing in San Francisco.
Chhabria was sympathetic to the argument from homeless residents’ attorneys that clearing the encampment could violate their constitutional rights because many of them don’t have suitable housing, shelter placement or anywhere else to go.
“If the government does not have shelter available for people, I think it’s very likely that the Constitution prevents the government from enforcing an anti-camping ordinance against homeless people,” Chhabria said. “Even if there are shelter beds available, they may be inadequate … I think you raise serious constitutional questions here.”
However, Chhabria also questioned whether the attorneys for homeless residents had sufficiently proven their case, noting that the county wants to shut down the encampment in order to make room for a new development that would include 175 apartments, 75 of which would be rented below market rate.
The plaintiffs’ legal team argued they were mainly looking for more time to get the tent village residents into housing or shelter, leading Chhabria to eventually introduce his proposal for a three-week delay in the camp’s closure.
“It’s not our intent to try to hold this up forever,” said Santa Rosa attorney Jeffery Hoffman with California Rural Legal Assistance, representing the plaintiffs. “We just want to make sure that there’s a process that takes everyone into account.”
Chhabria said he would issue a ruling “very quickly” but may give himself one more “short extension” before his latest decision to block the eviction expires at 5 p.m. Friday.
County officials and their lawyer tried to convince the judge they had already provided sufficient opportunities to house or shelter people living at the encampment, and that they had a bed or living unit available for everyone who wants one.
The county set up a housing navigation center near the encampment where outreach workers spent about a month trying to get residents of the tent village into a shelter bed or longer-term housing.
So far, 24 people who were living behind the Dollar Tree have been moved into shelter and five transitioned into the Palms Inn, a former motel on Santa Rosa Avenue that’s been converted into 104 units of permanent supportive housing. Two of the five homeless plaintiffs are now living in the Palms Inn, and a third is expected to move there soon, according to county officials.
A total of 68 people from the encampment have now had their housing needs formally assessed. But Jenny Abramson, the county’s homeless and community services manager, testified that some people living behind the Dollar Tree had failed to engage with workers from the housing navigation center.