Inside Santa Rosa’s campaign to eliminate large homeless camps
Like hundreds of others who live in Santa Rosa with no place to call home, Robin Hall can never relax.
Since local officials last April closed a long-term encampment in Roseland, where Hall took harbor for nearly six months, she has hauled her belongings from place to place.
Sometimes it is the result of an organized sweep that displaces an entire camp. Other times she is spurred onward by a police officer, citing a violation of a city code. Again and again, she packs up and moves on, returning to a grinding, nomadic life familiar to those on the streets.
Hall, 43, went where others went when forced to move along. They looked for places where they might be left alone: vacant lots, rural byways, the Joe Rodota Regional Trail.
“It is good to be around your peers,” she said. “When you're alone, you don't know what could happen to you - and it does happen.”
She landed a few weeks back at Northpoint Corporate Center in southwest Santa Rosa, where more than 100 inhabitants have been camping out, mostly in ramshackle RVs, trailers and cars and, lately, a few tent-dwellers like Hall.
She will soon be made to leave there, too.
The 250-acre business park is the latest point of friction in a campaign to eliminate large homeless encampments around the city, as well as the significant health, safety and nuisance impacts they create. They include improper disposal of human waste, drug use and discarded needles, mounds of unsightly trash, open barbecues and people bathing in decorative ponds.
The city's attempt to prevent illegal encampments from taking root in the business park and other parts of Santa Rosa has pushed homeless people from one place to the next while government and nonprofit leaders have yet to find legal locations for them to live in peace.
Homeless Hill, the Sixth Street underpass, Roseland's Dollar Tree, the Joe Rodota Trail. One by one they've been cleared of campers with the result that other encampments soon gain mass, draw attention and are disbanded in turn.
Public officials and service providers say they are working to get people into housing. But they cannot let camps continue when they present health and safety risks, including lack of sanitation, environmental threats, fire risks, trespassing and other issues.
Yet with each new action, there remain sizable numbers of unserved homeless individuals still living on the streets.
“We can't do this forever,” conceded Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts. “Ultimately, we want to solve it. Plain and simple, we've got to put permanent supportive housing forward.”
Sonoma County and its largest city have grappled for decades with the problem of homelessness, in large part because of a regionwide housing shortage and skyrocketing costs.
In recent years, homeless people have been moving into highly visible parts of the city, raising public awareness of the issue and prompting millions of dollars in government spending on shelter expansion, permanent housing and services.
The number of homeless people has actually declined in Sonoma County since 2011, when more than 4,500 were counted during an annual census at the height of the Great Recession. Today, there are around 3,000 homeless people throughout the county, a little over half of them in Santa Rosa.
But to much of the public, their numbers seem to have grown as homeless camps have become more visible. Creekbed encampments were dispersed several years ago to protect water quality, while camps along the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train tracks were removed when commuter rail service began a year ago.
People who have been rousted end up congregating in places where they see other people camping, thinking they will be left alone. Increasingly larger encampments result.
The situation is projected to get worse. The October fires destroyed 5 percent of Santa Rosa's housing stock, driving up rents and home prices.
“We're not able to get people who are homeless into housing as quickly because the fires have turned the market upside down,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county's largest service provider and the city's primary partner.
Over the last year, the number of homeless people in Sonoma County has increased 6 percent. People who are chronically homeless - those who have been homeless for at least a year and have a disabling condition - has jumped 25 percent.
The city's strategy to address its homeless problem has triggered legal and political battles that are still unresolved.
Many of the unhoused and their advocates say those who remain homeless are living the only way they can in the absence of homes, sanitation services and trash collection. They say enforcing anti-camping codes criminalizes homelessness, and that the subjects of camp sweeps aren't given true alternatives to sleeping where they're not welcome. For many, their emotional health, disability or other problems prevent them from accepting commonly offered shelter at the city-owned Sam Jones Hall, advocates say.