Camp crowding Santa Rosa trail is new flashpoint over homeless enforcement
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.