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Another homeless camp dismantled in Santa Rosa

Sonoma County officials on Monday evicted 38 campers from a short strip of asphalt in south Santa Rosa that for 10 days offered refuge to some of the more than 250 people who once called the Joe Rodota Trail home.

Nine people accepted placement in local emergency shelters, including two who went to the county’s new temporary shelter at Los Guilicos Juvenile Justice Center near Oakmont, a county spokesman said.

But for most, the ouster from Bane Avenue near West Robles Road sent them searching for another place to settle after a stressful day of packing up tents, bedding and disparate belongings to be lugged away in whatever fashion they might manage.

The county said 29 campers refused offers of shelter at various facilities. James Morell, 54, a veteran of the streets who said he doesn’t do well in dormitory-style housing, turned down an offer to go to Sam Jones Hall, a shelter operated by Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

“I’m not even used to this, living in big groups,” he said as he packed up his possessions.

County officials said it wasn’t safe to allow people to sleep in the roadway near the end of Dutton Avenue, even one behind locked gate arms that appeared to lead only to a weed-choked, unpaved road.

The road is used by the owners of surrounding properties to access their land, including Recology and a farmer who tends cows in a pasture adjacent to the encampment, said Alegría De La Cruz, the county’s chief deputy counsel.

The size of the community was a critical factor in the decision to evict the campers. The settlement started with about 10 people on their first night away from the Rodota Trail and had grown since then, acquiring a warming tent and two portable toilets organized by a local advocacy group.

Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, said generally the county does not take enforcement actions against small encampments but cannot ignore ones the size of the settlement along Bane Avenue.

“The point is, the size of this is really where you tip the scale in creating a public health and a safety risk,” Robinson told advocates for the unsheltered Monday during a contentious debate in the middle of the street. “We’re not going to take an action or enforcement on every encampment. But when you reach a certain size, you create risk.”

Notices posted Thursday along a chain link fence at the camp advised residents they were trespassing. Sheriff’s deputies had been walking through at least three times a day, reminding people they were not allowed to be there, campers said.

About a dozen Sonoma County sheriff’s personnel took part in Monday’s daylong effort. Numerous homeless advocates were present, too, many of them recording videos of the interactions.

There was a brief scuffle when one man refused to engage with deputies, saying he didn’t want to talk to them and walked away. A deputy followed him and eventually pushed the man against a chain link fence as a crowd gathered, many of them yelling at the deputy to leave him alone. The man was arrested on suspicion trespassing and resisting arrest, friends said, but was bailed out by the end of the day.

The camp removal is the latest development in the county’s ongoing struggle to confront homelessness in a region where housing is in short supply and disproportionately costly when compared with the median wage.

Elected officials in both Sonoma County and its largest city, Santa Rosa, have declared homeless emergencies. The county Board of Supervisors recently committed nearly $12 million to a suite of actions aimed primarily at addressing the needs of those who filled the Rodota Trail beginning late last summer and ending Jan. 31, when residents were cleared off the Sonoma County Regional Park trail under threat of arrest. The $2 million Los Guilicos Village, a collection of 60 tiny homes expected to be in use on the site for ?90 days, is among the actions authorized in the recent package.

It’s not just about moving the campers to Los Guilicos Village and leaving them, Robinson said. They are there to get medical, housing and social services support intended to help lift them into more stable lives.

But the homeless and their advocates say there aren’t enough adequate shelter alternatives to offer campers who are being pushed out of settlements they create. People with personal histories of abuse or violence often can’t sleep in rooms crowded with strangers nearby, for instance, they say. Others can’t climb to upper bunks, which are often the only ones available. Some people who have slept outside for years find it difficult to adjust to being enclosed.

Stephanie “Cricket” Somersall, 52, said she’s among those who feel unsafe having people walk by her bed while she’s asleep in a shelter.

On Bane Avenue, she slept inside a small tent pitched in a large tent with her sister and her cousin, with one corner set up neatly like a pantry - until it all had to be packed up.

“I just felt comfortable last night,” she said early Monday.

Corey Gamboa, 32, said he and at least seven others on Bane Avenue had traveled the same migratory path since the August 2017 deconstruction of the so-called “Homeless Hill” encampment above Bennett Valley Road - moving from there to downtown Santa Rosa overpass encampments, and then to the Dollar Tree parking lot off Sebastopol Road, where a large community that grew in the winter of 2017, eventually swelling to about 140 people, would inform policy and politics into the present.

Then they went to the Joe Rodota Trail and to West Robles Road, though he was among the early ones to depart.

They consider the empty spaces around the county and wonder why there isn’t a place for them to stay in the communities they choose.

“If you’re just wasting the space, why waste it?” said Alan “A.J.” James, 43. “It’s wasted space.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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