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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.

“We can’t force people to respond to an assessment if they sit in their tents and will not engage with an outreach worker who’s there,” Abramson said via video conference.

Still, the judge appeared sympathetic to concerns about the shelter options from homeless plaintiffs, including one who said she had been sexually assaulted at a shelter and needed an enclosed space of her own in order to feel secure.

Another plaintiff, Deborah Drake, said she suffers from ovarian cancer, congestive heart failure and emphysema and didn’t want to be separated from her son, who also lives behind the Dollar Tree and cares for her. Drake testified she wouldn’t feel safe being in a traditional shelter in an open environment around others who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She doesn’t feel that way about the encampment.

“I just go in and close the door and it’s like I’m hiding,” Drake said. “I know it’s just a flimsy little tent, but that’s the best we got right now. I feel safer.”

A room at the Palms Inn is expected to become available for Drake in the coming weeks, according to Abramson.

The commission needs to clean up soil contaminated by an old dry cleaner on the site and begin other work to get ready for the new development, none of which can happen as long as the encampment remains, said Benjamin Wickham, the commission’s affordable housing manager. Wickham was concerned the tent village’s continued presence could delay the project at a time when the fire-ravage county desperately needs more housing units.

Alegria De La Cruz, the chief deputy county counsel who represented the county commission in court, said she felt good about the hearing after its conclusion, but still needed to confer with county leaders to decide how to respond to Chhabria’s proposal.

“I think the judge understood our efforts and acknowledged them,” De La Cruz said.

Drake, however, remained skeptical about pushing the eviction off three weeks.

“It’s better than having it done tomorrow,” she said after the hearing. “I just don’t think it’s the answer — not the one we’re looking for.”

It’s not clear how quickly the county would initiate the closure of the encampment if and when the judge allows that to happen. But Santa Rosa police have offered assurances that their process would unfold over a period of days as opposed to an “immediate clearance,” Abramson said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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