The reunification of Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square has provided a new personality and sense of place for downtown. But one thing that it has not done is bridge the division that exists over how to address the problem of homeless and mentally ill individuals and others who, by their actions, make downtown a less appealing destination.
This was evident last week when the City Council gave the green light to a policy change that will give police and other officials the tools they need to crack down on serious and repeat offenders of such code violations as aggressive panhandling, camping in parks, public drunkenness, and urinating and defecating in public. Ask anyone who runs a business or frequents downtown and they are likely to tell you that these problems have grown worse in recent years.
But several people who spoke at the council meeting criticized the change as another attempt at criminalizing homelessness and making life more difficult for those already down on their luck. “Shame on you,” said one speaker.
If the council had approved this policy change in isolation, these criticisms would have been warranted. But that’s not the case. This is just one part of a multi-phased initiative launched by the City Council to address homelessness in general, a plan that includes increasing funding for and improving coordination with public and private organizations that provide shelter and other services for those who need them.
What the council did last week was put in place another key component, ensuring law enforcement officials have the tools they need to do their jobs — to enforce the city’s ordinances and address those who are repeat offenders.
In fact, this represents more of a resumption of a city policy than a change in one. Up until several years ago, Santa Rosa police had the option of citing a repeat aggressive panhandler, for example, with a misdemeanor, which comes with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail. But for reasons that are not clear —and may have had to do with budget and staffing cuts at the city and county levels — the practice was changed in 2013. After that, police could only issue citations for an infraction, which comes with a financial penalty but little else. As a result, those citations have often been ignored.
By restoring this pre-2013 practice of issuing misdemeanors, police as well as prosecutors will once again have the tools and discretion they need to address serious and chronic violations. City officials also say they will be working closely with local programs to divert individuals to services rather than putting them in jail, depending on the circumstances.
It’s a change that has been needed. That said, the City Council will need to monitor the results of this policy change closely and stand by its commitment not to let this become just another process for making those who suffer from homelessness and mental illness wards of the justice system. History has shown that, in isolation, is a failed practice.
This more comprehensive and coordinated approach to dealing with homelessness deserves a chance to succeed. But to do so, it needs all of the tools available — including this one.