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Authorities clear homeless camp near downtown Santa Rosa in latest sweep

Steven Cook was packing his cart by 6:45 a.m. Tuesday. It was moving day. Again.

“I thought the cops would be here by now,” said Cook, who was living in a small tent on the sidewalk, in the shadow of the Highway 101 on-ramp at Sixth and Morgan streets near downtown Santa Rosa.

This encampment of between 15 and 30 people had sprung up after police cleared a number of homeless camps a month ago, located at Highway 101 underpasses from Third Street to College Avenue.

Two days earlier, the occupants of the Morgan Street camp had been informed it would be cleared Tuesday morning — at least the sixth such forced dispersal of homeless encampments in the city in 2021.

“That’s what they always do — have us going from spot to spot,” said Cook, who was disinclined, he said, to seek a bed in the city’s Sam Jones homeless shelter, where “it’s gonna be crowded, we’re probably gonna get sick.”

The first patrol car rolled up Morgan before 7 a.m. By 7:30, police were politely engaging those living in tents and makeshift shelters. Members of Catholic Charity’s homeless outreach team talked to the homeless about what their next steps might be.

By 7:45 a.m., a group of city workers in hazmat suits and yellow vests began working their way up Morgan, sweeping and cleaning as they went. Behind them was a row of white pickup trucks, plus a small tractor and large dumpster.

“It’s not massive,” said Sgt. Jonathan Wolf of the encampment, which people had begun leaving the day before, “but you can see there’s a lot of trash piling up.”

By day’s end, the team from Catholic Charities had talked to 20 people in the encampment. Five decided to enroll in the program’s services.

A man who identified himself as “Chicago,” wasn’t sure where he’d go. He just knew it wouldn’t be Sam Jones. While he saw the value of such a shelter, it wasn’t really for him. “You want to eat when you want to eat, you know? Who wants a curfew at 50 years old?”

Chicago carried his possessions in a garbage bag provided by advocacy workers from Sonoma Applied Village Services, which helps provide housing to the unsheltered.

“This is exactly what we’ve been doing for the last year, over and over and over and over again,” said Jackie Nappi, who works for the nonprofit.

In addition to being shortsighted, she said, the city’s policy “beats down the spirit” of the people who must continually uproot themselves. Among the solutions she favors, and wishes the city would enact, are safe and sanctioned parking and camping places, along with villages of tiny homes.

“People want their own place,” she said. “They don’t want to keep being where they’re not wanted.”

Santa Rosa has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness among suburban communities in the nation, according to statistics kept by the federal government. Sonoma County’s latest homeless count found up to 562 chronically homeless individuals in the city.

In several recent sweeps, police have cited the danger of collisions with automobiles and commercial vehicles as one of many reasons to clear out an encampment.

A longtime member of Santa Rosa’s homeless community, Kellie Jones, was killed March 23 when police say a man intentionally drove his car into the encampment along Roberts Avenue where she lived.

At a memorial service for Jones, several people blamed Santa Rosa’s clearing of homeless camps for her death, saying that they were putting vulnerable people in harm’s way.

Among those bearing witness to Tuesday’s police action was a woman named Cynthia, a member of Sonoma Homeless Action. The money spent on these sweeps, “all the staff and trucks and the bulldozer,” would be better spent on longer term solutions, she said.

Cynthia, too, is a believer in villages of tiny houses. “Santa Rosa,” she said, “is small enough to be a model” for the rest of the country.

Having said her piece, she made her way down Morgan Street, bearing a placard that posed the question:

“Where can they go?”

Staff Writer Andrew Graham contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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