After months of tension managing growing homeless population, Petaluma getting more shelter resources
The colder temperatures make it difficult to keep a guitar tuned, so after Ron Stamp strummed a few sour notes he put his blue Fender down in frustration and lit a cigarette.
The 36-year-old Tampa native has been homeless in the Bay Area for five years. A potential job at an Emerald Triangle cannabis farm brought him out West, but Stamp said he was duped, robbed and stranded in San Francisco. The out-of-work musician keeps his spirits up, but said it’s been hard to find a job during the pandemic. He doesn’t want to stay in a local shelter, even as the weather gets colder.
“I just try to keep pushing until the next great thing (comes along),” Stamp said.
His campsite is one of several lining a stretch of the upper Petaluma River, located on undeveloped private land west of the fork with Lynch Creek. Some of the encampments here are extravagant, built into treetops or river embankments with constructed staircases, retaining walls and latrines. A boat is parked on one hillside, and signs of a makeshift transportation network dot the river banks.
The homeless population in Petaluma, Sonoma County’s second-largest city with about 62,000 residents, is growing, according to the latest census figures released last week. In recent years, in the absence of preventive measures, most government contact has been some form of police enforcement. Over the past month, that reality has inflamed tensions between activists and Petaluma officials after evictions were carried out at Steamer Landing Park, and at least four homeless individuals filed claims against the city.
The attention has revived questions about how the city, outreach groups and local service providers are managing Petaluma’s homeless population, and whether the current approach is effective.
An estimated 68 major camps exist in Petaluma, which is double the previous reported high in 2016, police said. Some in the outlying areas have gone undisturbed for years, said Officer Zilverio Rivera, who served on the Police Department’s homeless outreach services team before it was disbanded two years ago amid the worst staffing shortage in decades.
Yet there is renewed optimism from local officials that money from a wave of approved ballot measures could restore more proactive and persistent homeless outreach. That is coupled with new county efforts to identify and add new shelter options in Petaluma, and expand the area’s capacity.
“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said of the emerging resources. “Measure O doesn’t solve or eliminate homelessness. But it will get people housed and get us in that right direction at a quicker pace.”
Petaluma’s 296-person homeless population grew 10% from last year, according to the 2020 count of residents without consistent housing. However, the number of individuals in a shelter increased from 127 in 2019 to 163 when the survey was conducted in late February.
Overall, the south county, with about 600 people counted, saw a 25% uptick largely due to Rohnert Park’s ballooning homeless resident numbers, which almost doubled.
One of the most effective tools to addressing city homelessness was the HOST unit, which in 2018 had abated all 34 camps in Petaluma, at that time. A system of giving up to two weeks’ notice, making frequent visits with nonprofit partners and warning of potential arrest compelled many individuals to accept shelter, Rivera said.
"You have to provide incentive for people to take you up on services and treatment,“ he said. ”With the funding we’re supposed to be getting, we’re in a good place to make it happen (again).“
Without the dedicated unit, the city has turned to a one-year test program, the Downtown Streets Team, which since June has been employing homeless individuals to clean campsites, develop work skills and serve as another tool for outreach. Petaluma’s assistant city manager, Brian Cochran, said it’s been “wildly successful,” and expects the City Council to extend the program.
But many public safety, health and environmental issues have remained. The homeless community accounts for nearly a third of the Police Department’s calls for service, Chief Ken Savano said.
Warming fires have sparked brush fires in Petaluma and other parts of the county, and concerns about garbage and debris getting caught in the river tide and washing into the ocean have kept public safety officials on edge, Savano said.
Many of those issues converged last month when police evicted multiple camps along the McNear Peninsula, and issued several misdemeanor infractions. Advocacy groups, including the Tamalpais Equity Campaign and Porchlight Coalition, claimed Petaluma did not comply with the Martin v. Boise Supreme Court decision, which protects the right to sleep on public property if shelter space isn’t available.