Some time last winter, a new public conversation about homelessness in Santa Rosa became inevitable. As encampments sprang up under freeway overpasses and elsewhere, the anxiety and frustration felt in nearby neighborhoods could not be ignored.
Meanwhile, the City Council had placed a $10.5 million bet on the reunification of Old Courthouse Square as a drawing card for the city center. The council couldn’t afford to see the investment fail because potential visitors to downtown didn’t want to be confronted with various nuisance crimes.
And so City Manager Sean McGlynn told the council on Tuesday that his staff would explore a tougher approach — one that would restore the practice of filing misdemeanor charges for violations of the so-called quality-of-life ordinances.
Officials are looking to deter people from urinating in public, camping on public property, obstructing sidewalks, panhandling in an aggressive fashion and leaving garbage in their wake.
Mayor Chris Coursey said the goal isn’t to criminalize homelessness, but to enforce laws already on the books. “Whether you’re homeless or not,” he said, “you shouldn’t be doing these things.”
This is tough issue, more so for a city that prides itself on bringing a compassionate approach to people in need.
Still, the adversities of the past months have tested even the most progressive of residents. As homeless camps sprang up, neighbors complained about people relieving themselves in public, drug paraphernalia discarded on the street and in parks, the fear of walking near those encampments and the belief that the homeless camps were the source of an uptick in neighborhood crimes.
For the homeless, too, these encampments proved to be unhealthy places. Police were obliged to make regular visits and, from time to time, city crews would be called in to clean-up the garbage and human waste.
On Tuesday, Coursey spoke to the complaints aimed at city officials: “I’m tired of getting calls from people who say police told them the City Council won’t let them do their jobs.”
If you check out neighborhood message boards online, you’ll find plenty of frustration and anger. Among other complaints last week: The City Council study session was scheduled for three in the afternoon, a time that works for political activists but not for people with other kinds of jobs. Historically, study sessions have been held in the afternoon — but the timing won’t be confused with an effort to make government more accessible to most people.
As usual, it didn’t take long for the arguments about homelessness to break down into two camps.
All we need to do is enforce the laws and the problem will be solved, some say. Never mind that the previous schemes for citing homeless offenders fell apart. (Of the 839 citations issued in 2016, the council was told, 87 percent of the recipients ignored them.)
All we need to do is provide enough beds and bathrooms, and everything will be OK, says a second group. Never mind that there will never be enough beds. Never mind that shelters and public bathrooms are costly and difficult to maintain.
This one-size-fits-all approach to arguing homeless issues seems to work for people, but it ignores the fundamental reality that people are homeless for all kinds of reasons — which means they manifest many kinds of behaviors.