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Joe Rodota Trail closed to clear new homeless encampment west of Santa Rosa

Joe Rodota Trail closure

The 8.5-mile Joe Rodota Trail runs east-west between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol parallel to Highway 12.

Because of the efforts to close and clear the encampment, Sonoma County Regional Parks has closed virtually all of the trail within Santa Rosa city limits, a 2.5-mile stretch from Roberts Avenue to Wright Road.

The Joe Rodota Trail remains open between Wright Road and Sebastopol, where it connects with the West County Trail, a path running from Sebastopol to Forestville with access to Graton.

Residents who need to access the trail’s closed segment to reach Sebastopol can divert to Sebastopol Road before reconnecting with the trail at Wright Road. Sebastopol Road does not have bicycle lanes along its entire length, so it’s important to exercise caution. Another option to get to Sebastopol is West Third Street.

The trail is expected to be closed in Santa Rosa at least through Friday and potentially through the weekend.

Edmund Wilson picked up a blanket, folded it and placed it in a shopping cart near his campsite, one of a handful remaining Wednesday morning on a grassy expanse south of the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa.

The 55-year-old man from Chicago said he’d moved to Sonoma County as a traveling nurse to work at the Petaluma Valley Hospital about two years ago, but he’d developed health problems that made it difficult to work and had eventually lost his job. Nowadays, he doesn’t know exactly what it would take to stabilize his life, but he’s happy to receive “a helping hand, maybe a kind word once in a while.”

Wilson was among a group of up to 20 people living in tents and makeshift shelters along the trail between Roberts and Dutton avenues, part of a 2½-mile segment that county Regional Parks officials closed Tuesday afternoon in the latest effort to clear homeless campers from public land — and avert any potentially larger encampment from forming.

Parks officials erected fencing across the trail Tuesday and posted signs giving notice of the closure and orders to the campers to clear out by 8 a.m. Wednesday. But no rangers were on hand to enforce the order at the appointed hour, when the lone activity consisted of volunteers trying to help some of the campers and journalists documenting the latest local encampment eviction.

Most campers, including Wilson, did not appear to have their next destination firmed up, with some simply relocating a stone’s throw away on Roberts Avenue. They seemed resigned to what has become a common pattern in recent years across Santa Rosa and other parts of Sonoma County: setting up camp somewhere else and living there until authorities force a move.

The trail segment east of Wright Road was fenced off Tuesday to prevent campers from relocating on the trail, where a camp of up to 250 people — the largest ever in the county — was disbanded in early 2020.

At that time, the Board of Supervisors approved an $11.6 million emergency spending package, including funds for additional shelter space, housing and aid staff, before closing the trail and clearing out the encampment. The county then spent about $450,000 to clean up the trail, with crews hauling away about 100 tons of debris.

“Public safety is our No. 1 concern, and we really don’t want to see an encampment that gets to the size of what we saw a year ago,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

By Tuesday afternoon, a sign declaring the trail closed west of Roberts Avenue had been spray-painted and the fence bearing the sign had been forced open to allow continued access. On the east side of the road, a perplexed westbound cyclist found himself stopped by the chain-link barrier before turning around to try the trails along Santa Rosa Creek.

Two rangers made their way through the small collection of tents, giving the handful of campers present verbal notice that they needed to leave. Written notices also were posted and distributed.

The current closure is expected to last at least through Friday and possibly into the weekend, Whitaker said. He couldn’t say whether the effort to clear the camp would be complete Wednesday.

“It may take several days of working with individuals,” he said.

‘Extremely stressful day’

Two campers who were around during the rangers’ visit said they had been unsheltered for multiple years and struggled with sobriety.

Santa Rosa native Leland Serrano, who is in his early 30s, said he'd been living on the streets for most of the past 13 years. He managed to secure an apartment and work last year — but once he started making steady money, he said, he relapsed, overdosed and lost his housing in December.

Serrano expressed more interest in securing a job than a home, explaining that he wouldn’t feel comfortable if someone else paid to put him up. But he noted that housing was critical, as in his experience, employers weren’t keen on hiring homeless people.

“How do they expect the homeless to do anything to boost themselves if they don’t give us a chance?” Serrano said.

By Wednesday morning, Serrano had packed up his belongings and left the campsite. Asked if he knew where he was going, he said “nope” and kept moving.

Several people with the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, a local volunteer group that helps people experiencing homelessness, showed up early Wednesday to help the remaining campers move out and find new accommodations. That means folding up tents and toting other belongings as well as giving rides to people who have their next landing spot identified, said Marcos Ramirez, a member of the coalition.

Joe Rodota Trail closure

The 8.5-mile Joe Rodota Trail runs east-west between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol parallel to Highway 12.

Because of the efforts to close and clear the encampment, Sonoma County Regional Parks has closed virtually all of the trail within Santa Rosa city limits, a 2.5-mile stretch from Roberts Avenue to Wright Road.

The Joe Rodota Trail remains open between Wright Road and Sebastopol, where it connects with the West County Trail, a path running from Sebastopol to Forestville with access to Graton.

Residents who need to access the trail’s closed segment to reach Sebastopol can divert to Sebastopol Road before reconnecting with the trail at Wright Road. Sebastopol Road does not have bicycle lanes along its entire length, so it’s important to exercise caution. Another option to get to Sebastopol is West Third Street.

The trail is expected to be closed in Santa Rosa at least through Friday and potentially through the weekend.

“This is an extremely stressful day for people, to get evicted over and over again,” Ramirez said.

Edmund Wilson vacates an encampment  along the Joe Rodota Trail after Sonoma County Regional Parks officials gave a group experiencing homelessness an 8 a.m. deadline to move off the trail, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Edmund Wilson vacates an encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail after Sonoma County Regional Parks officials gave a group experiencing homelessness an 8 a.m. deadline to move off the trail, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Shifting series of camps

The Dutton-Roberts encampment is the latest in a string of makeshift living spaces carved out by homeless people on public property in Santa Rosa under the terms of a 2019 court order that limits enforcement actions. That order has created a systemic approach for dismantling encampments: authorities move in, offer services and shelter, notify campers that they need to vacate their illegal campsites and eventually clear the land of people.

The county’s effort to close the encampment before it grows any larger mirrors the approach adopted by Santa Rosa, which typically tries to clear encampments once they reach a population of 10 to 15 people.

The largest encampment currently appears to be the collection of dwellings in northwest Santa Rosa north of Piner Road on Industrial Drive, where dozens of people have been living for weeks, many of them in RVs.

Santa Rosa has twice planned enforcement against that encampment but has postponed both times because of COVID-19 outbreaks — first at Samuel Jones Hall, the city-owned homeless shelter, and then at the encampment itself.

The latest round of testing at the Industrial Drive encampment came back Monday and turned up no new positive results, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s homeless services manager. The city has resumed its “encampment resolution efforts” this week and plans to close the encampment next week, she said, noting that the Joe Rodota Trail encampment efforts were being led by the county.

At least seven people accepted some sort of services from the county’s outreach teams as of Wednesday, according to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

Neither Serrano nor Tyrell Brown, who said he'd been homeless since 2017, knew exactly where they would go next once the rangers got around to closing their temporary home.

“We’re going to find another spot,” Brown said. “We’re going to set up shop, and it’s going to be business as usual.”

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

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