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A bicycle commuter riding Tuesday along the Joe Rodota Trail was assaulted as he passed through a homeless camp on the popular bike and pedestrian path connecting Santa Rosa to Sebastopol.

Bill Petty, 42, was pedaling home when he said a group of eight to 10 people blocked his path. As he tried to walk his bike through the crowd, he said someone pulled on his shirt, an argument broke out and then a man punched him.

Petty said he suffered fractures just above his left eye and on his nose, which he had treated at the hospital.

“I didn’t even see the punch coming,” said Petty, a Roseland resident who for more than a year had been riding his bike every day to and from work on Auto Row on Corby Avenue.

He said he called out to the group as he approached on his bike but no one moved.

“They’re telling me that I should go around, I said, ‘I can’t go around because there’s tents on both sides of the trail,’” Petty said.

The incident highlights growing conflict and unrest between those who use the trail and the homeless people camping on both sides of the path just west of Dutton Avenue. Homeless advocates say it also points to the larger problem of inadequate permanent housing for the homeless.

Last month, a homeless man on the trail was stabbed in the back. And a Santa Rosa police officer patrolling the trail earlier this month accidentally lost control of his electric dirt bike and careened into a tent, injuring a homeless woman inside.

“It’s not an acceptable situation out there,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said. “As far as bicycle safety, it’s not a good situation. And as far as the people living there, it’s not a good situation — it’s not good for anyone.”

Coursey said the encampment along the trail must be removed.

But homeless advocates say those people don’t have anywhere to go. They say there isn’t adequate stock of housing available for the homeless, and that those efforts to get campers off the trail and connected to shelters and supportive services are more like a revolving door that ultimately puts people back out on the street.

“People have no place to go,” said Kathleen Finigan, a member of the activist group Homeless Action.

Finigan acknowledged things are coming to a head at the Joe Rodota encampment, which grew out of the eviction of the Roseland Village homeless camp behind the Dollar Tree in late April. But she blasted county officials for failing to make good on their promise to establish a safe camping space for those homeless people who for various reasons are unable to stay in shelters.

“They’re blaming the victim instead of taking responsibility for fulfilling their promise,” she said.

Michael Anthony Howard-LaFond, 20, eventually was arrested, and now faces felony battery charges because of the extent of Petty’s injuries, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf said.

Wolf, who heads the downtown enforcement unit, said it’s unclear if the suspect lived in the encampment or was visiting friends there.

He said officers made between 15 and 20 arrests near the encampment in the past 1½ weeks. Most were for outstanding warrants and probation violations, he said.

Petty, who has avoided the trail since the assault, said a similar incident happened to him two or three weeks ago when another group blocked the path and wouldn’t move as he approached.

He said he got into an argument with a person, but someone else from the camp intervened, ordering the group to shut up.

“The man said, ‘That’s the reason we’re getting kicked out of here,’ ” Petty said.

Alisha O’Loughlin, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said her organization has received several calls from cyclists who say they no longer feel safe on the trail.

“We work really hard to try to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes,” she said. “Anything that’s a deterrent to getting more people on their bicycles, anything that is a safety issue is a huge concern to us.”

O’Loughlin said she’s sympathetic to the plight of the homeless.

“However, forfeiting our parks and open spaces to serve as de facto campgrounds for those without housing is unacceptable,” she said.

Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, said the recent violence along the trail is a serious concern.

He said park staff are working with county officials and city police to schedule a final date to clear out the homeless camp.

“We’re optimistic that in the next couple of days, there will be a schedule out and the resources put in place to remove the encampments,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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