Camp crowding Santa Rosa trail is new flashpoint over homeless enforcement

A camp of more than 100 tents sprawled along the Joe Rodota Trail infringes so heavily on the popular public connector between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol that county officials recommend bypassing it.|

A sprawling homeless camp of more than 100 tents and makeshift dwellings has overrun a public trail in west Santa Rosa, spurring a flood of complaints about safety and squalid living conditions and stoking public debate over what many local residents decry as another example of government's failure to respond to an intractable problem.

The camp, which now spans about a quarter mile of the Joe Rodota Trail west of Stony Point Road, has swelled to at least 110 people in recent weeks amid a growing list of calls taken by Santa Rosa police. The tally now tops more than 80 reports regarding homelessness on the trail over the past few months, with incidents ranging from outstanding warrants to an assault with a deadly weapon.

Local officials acknowledge the unsanctioned camp is rife with health and safety issues, including the spread of untreated human waste, substance abuse and garbage strewn around the area.

Some residents say the settlement has become a blight on the popular public trail - a converted former rail right of way overseen by the county. The impact on nearby residents and businesses has also become increasingly clear. People in the camp area apparently have used drugs in broad daylight on multiple occasions, and one longtime camp denizen said this week that she knew of a bottle of urine tossed by a homeless person into an adjacent home's backyard.

“This is a public safety hazard and a humanitarian crisis,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the encampment.

‘Epicenter for lawlessness'

The camp's growing size has prompted county park rangers to largely steer clear of the trail segment, part of an 8.5-mile path from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol that is a well-used route for bike commuters and recreational riders, joggers and walkers. Some have reported avoiding the path, not wanting to run a gantlet they perceive as potentially threatening. For its part, the county seems to agree, with plans now in motion to advise trail users to avoid the area.

The homeless settlement has become “this sort of epicenter for lawlessness, this sort of symbol for, honestly, everything that's wrong in government,” Hopkins said in a candidates' forum last week.

It poses in graphic terms another front in the now all-too-familiar conflict for parts of Sonoma County, the Bay Area and California where homelessness is rampant - a conflict, Hopkins said, between “the people who are falling through the cracks and a takeover of what is a public right of way and something that taxpayers invested in so they could commute and get out of their cars and get between west county and Santa Rosa.”

But local government has done little about the highly visible camp, in clear sight of drivers on Highway 12 and residents on Occidental Road.

Workers with Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county's largest private homeless service provider, and some local officials have made occasional patrols through the area. County homelessness teams are set to make their presence known on the trail starting this week.

But there is no firm timeline for enforcement action against the campers, and a court order limits what local officials can do until at least next summer.

“Ultimately, what we want to see is that folks are leaving the trail because they're coming into services,” said Geoffrey Ross, the executive director of the Community Development Commission. “It's going to be a several-week process.”

Trail users told to avoid area

While officials figure out what to do and how to do it, those who use the trail for recreation and travel will be asked to bypass the area, said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. Signs will soon be posted advising people to find alternate routes for the foreseeable future, he said.

Parks officials are aware of “several hundred” reports related to drug use, obscene behavior and unsanitary conditions at the camp, he said. As it has grown there has been a spike in reports of conflict between homeless people and trail users, neighbors and rangers, who have decreased their patrols of late to curb a pattern of negative run-ins with the homeless, he said.

“It's a tragic situation with the homeless situation in the county, but there are so many individuals who depend on this trail for access to commute to their jobs, for recreation,” Whitaker said. “It's a pillar of our community.”

Local officials hope face-to-face outreach over the next few weeks will build trust with campers and “capture” them within the local homeless system of care, recently revamped to reflect a broader countywide approach to homelessness, Ross said. He didn't rule out providing trash cans and restrooms to improve living conditions along the trail but said he wanted to get people housed, not sanction the community living on the trail.

“We cannot accept an encampment as a solution,” Ross said.

One local resident who can see the camp from her home off Occidental Road across Highway 12 said she was worried about crime among homeless people living in the area, affecting not just her but families who frequent the trail.

“I got really concerned when I saw all these mothers with strollers and little children running around,” said Martha, who did not want her full name to be used out of fear of retaliation by homeless people near her. She added that in the eight years since she's lived there, she's avoided the trail: “I didn't feel safe walking on it alone, but I can see how many people use it.”

Advocates such as Arlie Haig with the Homeless Action group continue to press for government-sanctioned homeless camps or safe parking sites replete with security and on-site services. Haig said she wasn't surprised by the recent growth of the camp.

“It'll just keep growing,” she said. “If somebody doesn't start to provide services, whatever kind of help is possible - which is primarily trash pickup, bathrooms, security monitoring - then it will just become out of control.”

Displaced from Dollar Tree

The camp is the successor to a similar unsanctioned settlement that existed along the trail about a mile to the east, behind the Sebastopol Road Dollar Tree. It had existed in some form since 2015 and ballooned to at least 90 people before local officials cleared it out in spring 2018. That camp, in turn, was preceded by others: along the SMART tracks in Santa Rosa, in the shelter of Highway 101 overpasses downtown, and on undeveloped city land off Bennett Valley Road dubbed “Homeless Hill.” All were cleared by officials in the past three years, a kind of whack-a-mole approach to the area's most hardcore homeless population.

Homeless people and advocates, fed up after eviction of the camp near Dollar Tree, sued the county and city, and though they lost their immediate battle, the judge's ruling has effectively limited enforcement actions by police and park rangers in Santa Rosa. Authorities are now required to offer a shelter bed to each homeless person and storage for personal belongings before clearing a camp within city limits.

That legal curb stems from a closely watched September 2018 federal appeals court ruling, which deemed Boise, Idaho's anti-camping rule in violation of the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Boise has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in, and a final decision from the nation's high court could redefine the legal landscape of homeless camping across the nation.

In the meantime, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have agreed to abide by a key part of the Boise ruling: Homeless people within city limits can't be rousted by city police officers or county park rangers for camping illegally unless they're first offered a bed and storage for their personal belongings.

Ross said the county's approach would be largely the same as last year's action at the camp near the Dollar Tree.

“Boise was happening when we went through Roseland last year,” Ross said, though he acknowledged local officials didn't face a legal mandate last time. “I think that's a good thing. When we're doing this type of work, we want to make sure that we're doing right by whoever we're working with.”

Location complicates matters

The camp's location within city limits but on county property has complicated matters, raising questions about which government has the authority and responsibility to act. Both have been dealing with a seemingly endless series of wildfire-related crises - from the ongoing rebuild since the 2017 fires to the new pattern of widespread power outages ordered by PG&E to reduce wildfire risk during extreme weather events, a point that Hopkins raised last week.

Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa has been out at the camp at least weekly, counting 110 visible dwellings and engaging more than 80 people, 19 of whom have gone to shelters, said Jennielynn Holmes, the chief program officer for Catholic Charities, which provides many local homeless services including the operation of Samuel L. Jones Hall, the county's largest homeless shelter.

Holmes noted that Catholic Charities had not waited for government officials to lay out their plan for dealing with the Joe Rodota Trail settlement. “We go where the individuals are, and that's where they are right now,” she said.

Sam Jones has over 200 beds, at least 70 of which are set aside for spaces for emergency situations and for occupants of illegal camps. Though it's provided crucial refuge for many homeless people in or passing through Sonoma County, the military facility-turned-homeless shelter has drawn complaints from those it serves of crowded and uncomfortable living conditions.

When Zowie Kauffman, 20, moved from southern Nevada a few years ago, drawn by the fruitless promise of a new foster care home in Northern California, she wasn't picturing a tent on the side of a trail in Santa Rosa. She said she tried a local housing program but was kicked out for smoking cannabis, which she denies.

Kauffman ended up spending about five months at Sam Jones Hall but left after she felt sexually harassed on several occasions. She and others living near her complained of the spread of sickness, or “kennel cough,” in Sam Jones. She said she doesn't want to go back.

On Monday, Kauffman sipped Coca-Cola in a tent near “Thor,” “Squeaks” and “Gizmo,” three fellow homeless young adults who declined to give their names. They sat within a small makeshift fence containing their belongings and two cavorting kittens. The morning's conversation evolved from complaints about Sam Jones to talk of social revolution.

“This is our riot,” Kauffman said. “Our tents are up, and this is where we're staying.”

Ross said he understood that people like Kauffman may initially resist indoor shelter options, but he pointed to a countywide homeless count and a survey that indicated about 90% of people who were homeless or staying in emergency shelter would move into housing if it were available.

“For some folks, they don't want to go into Sam Jones,” Ross said. “But we have over 2,000 ? different beds in our system, and given the time to work with folks, we have the opportunity to bring people in, in more individualized settings.”

Holmes acknowledged complaints about the living conditions at Sam Jones. She said those criticisms are not unique to Sam Jones, and pointed out that living in a shelter or permanent housing provides protection from the elements that similar close-quarters living outdoors does not.

Crime deterring trail users

Kauffman's part of the camp seemed relatively calm. But data from the Santa Rosa Police Department highlights friction between the law and some campers on the trail.

Police records indicate 163 ? calls for service along the entire Joe Rodota Trail since July 1, nearly 90 of which were homeless-related. Nearly half of all calls along the trail since July 1 originated near the path's intersection with Stony Point Road - close to the bulk of the encampment.

Many crimes reported on the trail recently had to do with outstanding warrants and possession of controlled substances or drug paraphernalia. Others stemmed from reports of domestic violence, pollution, assault with a deadly weapon, cruelty to a child and public intoxication, according to police data.

Craig Murphy, who lives near Montgomery High School in east Santa Rosa, said he used to bike along the trail with his family on ice cream excursions to Screamin' Mimi's in Sebastopol. Those trips are on hold after Murphy saw the extent of the camp earlier this month.

“There's no way I would take my kids on the Joe Rodota Trail based on what I saw,” Murphy said.

Murphy and two friends rode their bikes along the trail earlier this month and filmed their trip. The roughly 11 minutes of trail footage, titled “Wine Country Turning into Slum Country, and Citizens are Fleeing,” has been viewed more than 20,000 times since it was published Monday.

Murphy said the video was intended to highlight conditions on the trail - including apparent instances of intravenous drug use - and spur a response from local, state and national officials. He echoed Whitaker's statement about the importance of the Joe Rodota Trail to local residents.

“It's a public path that used to be something Santa Rosans were proud of and something people used, and now people won't even use it,” Murphy said.

Ross, the county official, said there might not be enough shelter beds for every homeless person in Sonoma County but believed the system could handle the population on the trail. Before enforcement takes place under the court-approved limits, he said he hoped to convince people like Kauffman living on the trail to choose stable housing over makeshift camp life.

“For so many of these folks, they became vulnerable at such a young age,” Ross said, “and the system has not been able to capture them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports

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