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Federal judge sets rules for Santa Rosa homeless camp sweeps

A federal judge will require Santa Rosa to offer homeless people a bed and a place to store their personal belongings when it rousts them from illegal camps, a ruling that city officials and homeless advocates touted as a promising step toward addressing a seemingly intractable issue.

The 14-page order issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria is backed by Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, the county Community Development Commission and the Homeless Action advocacy group. It follows months of negotiations stemming from the March 2018 lawsuit filed on behalf of Homeless Action, which attempted to stop a city sweep of homeless camps in last year.

While the lawsuit failed to prevent the sweep, it has now led to rules governing how the city can and cannot act when breaking up large homeless encampments.

The court order takes effect Aug. 12 and continues through June 30, 2020. Santa Rosa already has planned outreach and enforcement actions later this month against encampments along the Prince Memorial Greenway and the Sixth Street underpass below Highway 101, near Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa’s homeless outreach offices on Morgan Street. Santa Rosa officials pledged to voluntarily adhere to the order during the upcoming sweeps and noted the city’s current encampment enforcement program nearly mirrors Chhabria’s order.

“I’m hoping Santa Rosa will be a model program,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm. “I think we’ve been working our tails off to improve our homeless system of care.”

Homeless Action hailed the temporary truce as progress toward ending the criminalization of homelessness.

“Criminally punishing homeless individuals for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane,” Homeless Action co-founder Adrienne Lauby said in a statement. “With this agreement, the City and County promise to begin offering adequate placements instead of simply arresting and citing them for camping or conducting other life sustaining activities which they must do in order to survive.”

Before making his decision, Chhabria traveled to Santa Rosa to tour Samuel L. Jones Hall, a ?213-bed homeless shelter that is the largest in the county, Schwedhelm said. A court spokeswoman said Chhabria was not available for comment Friday. “Our judges never comment on pending cases,” spokeswoman Lynn Fuller said.

The order applies to city enforcement actions against people who are living in tents, cars or other structures in encampments of five or more dwellings. It referenced a pivotal case arising from homeless sweeps in Boise, Idaho, which sits in the same federal appeals court circuit as Santa Rosa.

Court rules on homelessness

In September, a panel of federal judges ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment prevented Boise from criminalizing homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property without offering them a space in a shelter. Boise has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal and has until late August to argue why its case should be heard by the nation’s highest court.

Like Boise, Santa Rosa has a similar ordinance prohibiting camping on public property - and a far larger homeless population, with about 60% of the nearly 3,000 homeless people in Sonoma County.

Even before Chhabria’s ruling, Santa Rosa officials had said they planned to abide by the court’s decision in the Boise case during the upcoming sweeps, which are expected to clear encampments occupied by up to 40 people.

The city already provides notice to people and plans to ensure that it has sufficient shelter beds before cracking down on the two encampment areas, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s homeless services manager.

Where to store belongings

What will be noticeably different is how the city handles the personal belongings, in light of a provision in Chhabria’s order that Santa Rosa must offer storage of certain personal items for up to 90 days after a sweep, she said. The judge’s order includes a list of items that can be discarded immediately, such as needles, dirty bedding and perishable food. Staff will be able to toss away mattresses but not tents, wheelchairs or bicycles.

“If we come across something like a backpack or something of value, then we’re going to bag and tag it and store it,” Kuykendall said, noting that in the past “most of what’s left behind is garbage.”

City staff are still figuring out where they’ll store the items they collect, Kuykendall said. The city will continue notifying homeless people prior to taking enforcement action and will also post notices with contact information and instructions for homeless people whose belongings are in storage, she said.

Encampments on the Greenway and at the underpass near Morgan Street are nothing new but seem to have worsened in recent months, she said. The city’s criteria for choosing which encampments to enforce includes considering recent complaints, police and fire calls for service related to homelessness and impacts to the surrounding area.

The Greenway camps pose the risk of contaminating Santa Rosa Creek, and both sites pose safety risks for pedestrians, Kuykendall said.

‘Adequate shelter’ required

Seventy-five beds at Sam Jones Hall are set aside for Santa Rosa’s ongoing program of homeless outreach and enforcement, which began in 2017 with the clearing of encampments south of Farmers Lane on what was known as Homeless Hill. Subsequent sweeps have occurred in various Highway 101 underpasses, Doyle Community Park and Corporate Center Parkway.

The city’s evolving program also was engaged during the cleanup of a large homeless encampment behind the Dollar Tree store near the Joe Rodota Trail in Roseland on land owned by the county Community Development Commission.

Though Chhabria didn’t block that sweep, as Homeless Action’s lawsuit sought, the judge noted in a filing last year that “future enforcement actions against homeless people in Sonoma County might be restricted by the absence of adequate shelter.”

The judge’s order calls for Santa Rosa officials to offer “adequate shelter,” meaning a bed in a shelter available for at least a month. Shelters must provide single-gender placement for individuals who object to mixed-gender living and reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. “A barracks-style placement may not be adequate” for people with certain mental health conditions, Chhabria wrote.

Within Santa Rosa city limits

Future sweeps can occur without certain preliminary steps if there is an “immediate hazard or obstruction” presenting a risk of injury or death to a homeless person or others; blocking access to public facilities; or posing potential harm to others’ property, Chhabria ordered.

“Nothing in this order shall preclude law enforcement personnel from taking reasonable action in response to suspected criminal activity,” Chhabria wrote.

Schwedhelm said he appreciated both the flexibility allowed to local law enforcement and the order’s grievance process to resolve any alleged violations of the new rules.

Friday’s order applies to enforcement actions within city limits by Santa Rosa police officers, city and county parks workers and private contractors providing services to homeless people. It explicitly does not apply to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Sgt. Spencer Crum, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, noted that deputies were not involved with the clearing of the encampments in Roseland in early 2018 and that the judge’s order was limited to Santa Rosa city limits, which is under the jurisdiction of the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Schwedhelm said the parties to the lawsuit will check in periodically with the judge over the next year.

“We’re trying to collaborate,” Schwedhelm said. “We’re working on this complex social issue together, and we’re not just going to say, ‘Here’s the one solution, it’s perfect.’?”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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