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Sonoma County leaders have made clear they want the homeless people camping on a publicly-owned lot in southwest Santa Rosa to move — but not until an alternative spot has been designated.

The number of homeless campsites behind the Dollar Tree store on Sebastopol Road appeared to at least double last month — to 75 tents or more — after the city shut down encampments in the Highway 101 underpasses downtown. While officials until now have allowed the newcomers to remain on the county-owned site in Roseland, where a self-governed tent village took root about two years ago, they say everyone living on the property will eventually need to leave as the government prepares for the property’s long-planned redevelopment.

The county’s Community Development Commission, the owner of the Dollar Tree site, initially proposed requiring encampment residents to leave by Dec. 15 in order to make room for site work necessary before construction of the new development begins. However, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voiced concerns the deadline was too soon, a stance shared by activists staunchly opposed to the idea of clearing out the Roseland encampment without identifying another spot for people to relocate to.

“I’m not interested in issuing an eviction notice to this very fragile community … until we come up with some solutions,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, at last Tuesday’s meeting. “The consensus on this board is that the encampment is not tenable, but we need to have some humane alternatives.”

County officials have not yet revealed exactly where such an alternative location may be, but the Community Development Commission suggested potentially using a vacant publicly-owned property where homeless people could live in temporary structures — perhaps tents on a short-term basis — as advocates work to place them into long-term housing.

As of late last week, about 14 beds remained open at Sam Jones Hall, the largest shelter in the county, according to Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities. Since the underpass encampments were shut down, Holmes said her organization placed 36 people who formerly lived there into shelter.

“We’re still working with people,” Holmes said. “It’s a long trust-building process … Some people are ready to go in that moment; some people need a little longer. We don’t give up, and we continue to offer them services, and then when they’re ready, we’ll provide it.”

But county officials don’t think they can get every tent village resident into a shelter, so they’re trying to identify another transitional living situation to avoid effectively shifting homeless people from one part of Santa Rosa or the unincorporated county to another.

“At least some of them would take a shelter bed, we believe, and we think that is part of the solution,” Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Community Development Commission, told supervisors. “But we probably also need to be able to accommodate people who do not want to come inside and who do not want to sleep on a cot or a mat on the floor in a shelter. And so whether that happens on a different piece of publicly owned property or we find some other location — I don’t have a proposed solution for you on that today.”

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs agreed, noting the city was exploring possible new locations where homeless residents could sleep in cars, trailers or tents, perhaps, until receiving housing services. She emphasized, however, the city is not interested in authorizing the use of its parks for a sanctioned encampment.

“It’s essential for us, both as a city and a county, to have a variety of opportunity sites established for well-regulated and safe havens who don’t have immediate housing available,” Combs said in an interview. “We can’t keep moving people from one place to another without telling them where they can go.”

Since the Sebastopol Road homeless population swelled, the county has heard complaints from the property’s tenants, including the Dollar Tree, that operations have been negatively impacted by the presence of so many additional people, Van Vliet said. Yet for the police officers who patrol the nearby Joe Rodota Trail, the expansion hasn’t necessitated an intense response.

“We started patrolling there more often, but we really haven’t seen any noticeable increase in problems or calls for service along the Joe Rodota Trail,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, who leads the department’s downtown enforcement team.

The homeless population behind the Dollar Tree store has settled into two groups: the previous encampment, previously known as Camp Michela but now referred to as Remembrance Village, and the new one known as Last Chance Village, according to activists.

Both encampments are situated on the county’s Roseland Village property, which is slated for a transformation into a new mixed-use development with, among other elements, a public plaza, a civic building and 175 housing units. In order to begin preparations for the construction, county staff members have said they will need to fence off much of the site so workers can conduct environmental testing and monitoring, requiring the encampments to move.

Activists and homeless residents said the initially proposed Dec. 15 deadline would not give them enough time to find somewhere else to go.

“We thought we had a few months at least to locate more permanent housing,” said Remembrance Village resident Deborah Drake during the Tuesday board meeting. “They’re taking away the only thing we have: a safe place to lay your head at night. And right before Christmas? Really? … It’s like a homeless genocide. We can’t just disappear.”

County supervisors agreed, opting instead to have staff identify an alternate location before requiring the homeless residents to leave the Dollar Tree site.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents Roseland, has been supportive of the concept, stressing the importance of allowing a consistent location for people to sleep. At the same time, she said the county must remain focused on its housing-first policy priorities.

“I really think of it as a transitional village,” Hopkins said in an interview. “Hopefully we can help them get over there and then to really get them access to the health care that they need, to the housing resources that they need. But it’s going to take a substantial investment of funds, both city and the county, to make anything like this work.”

Carolyn Epple, a homeless issues activist who helped some residents from the highway underpasses to Roseland, has encouraged county officials to establish a sanctioned encampment. Such an authorized tent village, if granted enough resources, could help its residents by providing the stability they need, she said, which could in turn help them find long-term housing.

“I just fail to see why we would not give that to everyone we possibly could,” Epple said in an interview. “You don’t need much to do that, but you stabilize people. That is the fundamental purpose of housing first: Stabilize people, so they can start to address the issues that make it harder for them to get off the streets.”

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

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