A community meeting Monday night to provide information about Santa Rosa’s planned cleanup of Homeless Hill turned into a sometimes angry 90-minute question-and-answer session with some members of the audience complaining the proposal would deprive the homeless of a place to live while others wondered whether clearing the longtime encampment was worth the cost.
Although no date for the clearing has been set, the city plans to place the estimated 50 homeless people who live there in one of several housing options.
About 200 people attended the meeting at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Bennett Valley, located adjacent to the brush-covered hillside at Farmers Lane and Bennett Valley Road where homeless have built enough living spaces to make it the city’s largest of 44 identified encampments.
Numerous outbursts marked the meeting. They came from members of the homeless community and their advocates complaining the cleanup would take away people’s homes, and could affect their health. But Bennett Valley residents also interrupted the meeting, with some saying the cleanup was a waste of money.
Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, and Dave Gouin, director of the city’s Housing and Community Services, were in front of the crowd on a stage, and answered questions calmly and deliberately, whether they were shouted out or submitted on the provided note cards.
“We’re making sure we’re doing things differently to meet the needs of the people who maybe historically haven’t wanted to come into a shelter program,” said Holmes, explaining why the program to clear Homeless Hill was different from past efforts. “We’re lowering the barriers for entry. We’re changing our alcohol and drug policy.”
The strategy is called “housing first,” and if those on Homeless Hill agree to participate, some will be placed in permanent housing immediately, Holmes said. Most will be placed in housing with friends and family, at a motel or at southwest Santa Rosa’s Sam Jones Hall where the gymnasium is being opened up to allow for 50 people to be housed there under relaxed standards.
Until they’re placed in permanent housing, individuals will work with a team of people trained specifically to get them into housing, including a real estate professional.
“In the past years, who would we have out there looking for housing? Social workers,” Holmes said. “And the last time I checked, social work doesn’t have anything to do with real estate. So we’re hiring professionals to get out there and network with individuals to build an inventory of housing.”
The program will also offer participants transportation, secure storage and housing assistance funds.
Reactions from residents of Homeless Hill were mixed.
Walt Fristoe, 61, has lived on the city-owned patch of land for 15 years — the hill’s longest running resident, he said.
“I’ve been a transient my whole life,” he said. “I’ve never lived anywhere longer than five years until I got to Homeless Hill. I love the way I live. I don’t need electricity, running water, none of that. Plus, I don’t like the society you people have built, so I’m trying to segregate myself as much as I can.”
One of his neighbors on Homeless Hill, 46-year-old Beverly Hansel, has lived there for about 18 months and she’s ready to leave.
“I’m willing to accept any kind of help I can get,” she said. “I think it’s great that they’re even offering.”