Judge issues new ruling on Santa Rosa homeless sweeps ahead of key court deadline
If a Santa Rosa police officer tells a homeless person camped on the sidewalk or in a public park to move along, does that count as “enforcement“?
Santa Rosa and local homeless advocates stand on opposite sides of that question, and a federal judge gave them an answer last Friday. His guidance, essentially: Sometimes, but not always.
The Dec. 4 opinion from U.S District Judge Vince Chabria added little clarity to a 3-year-old legal fight, and that has limited Santa Rosa’s ability to displace local homeless people where they are set up on public ground. Those encampments proliferated this year and last, including several camps of 100 or more people at freeway underpasses in Santa Rosa and along the Joe Rodota Trail leading to Sebastopol.
The ruling comes as Santa Rosa and Sonoma County consider whether to agree to an extension of the rules governing sweeps. The agreement is set to expire Dec. 31, unless government officials endorse an extension.
“We’ve seen a lot of confusion in the past, and I think that things are even murkier now,” said Kathleen Finegan, a member of the Homeless Action group behind the suit.
Chabria’s original injunction, from July 2019, requires Santa Rosa to provide homeless people camped on public property notice of eviction and offer adequate housing and storage options before displacing those residents.
The Santa Rosa City Council discussed the litigation in closed session Tuesday, but it remains to be seen whether the city will agree to a six-month extension.
“We are in discussions with the other parties as to the potential for a six-month extension, but no final decision has been made,” City Attorney Sue Gallagher said Thursday. The deadline for informing the court is this Tuesday.
Sonoma County Counsel Robert Pittman did not respond to a request for comment.
Chhabria’s latest opinion came in response to claims from homeless advocates that the city had repeatedly violated the rules, including at least seven instances where homeless campers allegedly did not receive proper notice or accommodations. The plaintiffs also asked for clarification on whether telling a homeless person to move from an encampment counted as enforcement. Their end goal in the latest request is to spur stronger intervention by the city and county to get people off the streets and into safe housing.
“We’re looking for a coordinated effort to really solve homelessness,” Finegan said, adding that she hopes the local governments will agree to a six-month extension.
The city, in a response brief, said it had followed the terms of the injunction. While officers had arrested or cited several individuals related to encampments, only two of the arrests in question were for camping violations, the city said.
The city had argued against an expansion of the injunction, and Chhabria’s order did not include any new terms that would further limit Santa Rosa’s ability to move homeless encampments.
To Chhabria, however, the city appeared to be arguing that a “direction to relocate” never amounted to enforcement, while the homeless advocates appeared to have argued that such a direction is always enforcement. In the judge’s mind, “neither of these is a reasonable interpretation of the injunction,” he wrote in his order.
“Rather, a direction to relocate rises to the level of an enforcement action when a reasonable person would understand that a failure to promptly comply” would lead to a citation, arrest, encampment closing or property seizure pursuant to anti-camping laws, Chhabria wrote.
Gallagher, the attorney for Santa Rosa, said the order does not appear to alter how the city carries out homelessness outreach and camping enforcement.
“We were very comfortable with the judge’s order,” she said. “It is consistent with our current practice.”
Homeless advocates kicked off the legal fight in early 2018 by seeking to stop the clearance of a large encampment on and near the Joe Rodota Trail behind the Dollar Tree on Sebastopol Road. That effort failed, but the court wrangling led Chhabria to intervene and oversee a process of negotiating rules for clearing homeless encampments, resulting in the ongoing back-and-forth between governments and activists.
This year, the pandemic complicated matters further.
People experiencing homelessness are unusually vulnerable to COVID-19, the homeless advocates noted in their October filing, as they also experience disproportionately poor health and face increased risk of infection whether living on the streets without adequate health care or in crowded shelters.
Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instructed authorities nationwide to leave homeless encampments in place when safer housing options weren’t available. Santa Rosa’s initial position back in March was that it would follow the CDC’s guidance and avoid clearing encampments.