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On this wet and cold morning, people are camped under the Highway 101 overpass at Ninth Street. The sidewalks are stacked with sheets of plastic, cardboard, blankets, sleeping bags, tents and shopping carts jammed with all the worldly possessions of folks living on the street.

This winter, the 101 overpasses at Ninth, Sixth and Fifth streets in Santa Rosa have become popular sanctuaries for homeless people.

In the nearby West End and St. Rose neighborhoods, residents talk about the mess, the obstructed sidewalks and the people relieving themselves in public. Some neighbors say they are no longer feel comfortable walking through this corridor that connects east and west. Some wish police would do more.

“Honestly, we don’t feel safe anymore,” resident Denise Hill told a community meeting last week. “I can’t cross under Fifth, Sixth or Ninth Street because I do feel threatened.”

Santa Rosa police say they are trying to err on the side of helping people in need, Staff Writer Kevin McCallum reported. On its Facebook page, the police department explained: “We always try to balance public safety with compassion. During rain and extreme cold, the police department has no place to offer that is dry and warm. Unfortunately, keeping these temporary refuges clean and orderly is a challenge.”

This empathetic approach testifies to a community that tries to imagine what it would be like to be left without shelter on these wet, cold, sometimes freezing nights. Over the years, Santa Rosa has tried harder than most to provide shelter and services for the homeless.

Still, letting people sleep under a freeway overpass won’t be confused with a long-term solution. Living on the streets is unhealthy and potentially dangerous. In recent years, homeless people have died on the streets of Santa Rosa.

Over time, there will need to be a better way.

If solutions were easy, of course, communities all over America wouldn’t be struggling with the same issue. Here’s the New York Times last week: “Growing numbers of homeless encampments have led to civic soul-searching in cities around the country, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle. Should cities open up public spaces to their poorest residents, or sweep away camps that city leaders, neighbors and business groups see as islands of drugs and crime?”

In places like Santa Rosa, a scarcity of housing has driven up apartment rents, leaving more people without a place to live. Others are living on the streets because programs to help people suffering from mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction aren’t keeping pace with the needs. (Aiming to identify and promote targeted services for the homeless, the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective, a coalition of government and non-profit groups, will convene a two-day Summit on Homeless Solutions, Jan. 30 and 31 at Spring Hills Community Church.)

Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa City Council has dedicated more than $2 million to expand the number of shelter beds and to improve outreach. Last week, the council also set in motion a series of measures designed to encourage additional shelter space and to enlist city officials in persuading neighbors not to oppose additional shelters.

Still, the fact that people are sleeping under a freeway overpass tells us there is more work to do. Countywide, it is estimated, there is a need for an additional 2,200 housing units at a cost of $110 million. Absent more emergency shelters, more people will be sleeping in cars, alley ways or garages — or under freeway overpasses.

Few issues are more challenging. New housing and services for the homeless are not cheap. Many of the homeless require targeted kinds of help. There is public safety to consider, and there are neighborhood concerns and fears to allay. And all the while, communities must be trying to identify the most humane solutions.

“This is a frustrating problem and we haven’t found the answer, but we’re going to keep working on it,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.

Santa Rosa has a lot riding on its ability to find shelter for more people. Consider: If merchants are correct when they say the homeless population discourages other residents from visiting the downtown, what does that mean for the success of the city’s substantial investment in the reunification of Old Courthouse Square?

In dealing with this most intractable of issues, no one can guarantee success, and solutions may not happen in time to find housing for the people living this winter under the Ninth Street overpass. But community leaders will need to keep trying because the other option — more people living on the streets — is not OK.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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