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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.

But that changed in May, when the city, citing threats to health and human safety that authorities felt outweighed the pandemic’s risk, evicted dozens of campers from Doyle Park and its outskirts. The city then cleared larger gatherings under Highway 101’s downtown overpasses, along Corporate Center Parkway in southwest Santa Rosa and in Fremont Park east of the downtown square.

Homeless advocates, citing the experiences of several campers, accused the city of not giving adequate notice of rights and shelter as well as failing to properly store personal property. They also claimed the city was abusing the injunction by invoking its “immediate hazard” exception, which allows Santa Rosa to clear encampments without following the otherwise standard notice, housing and storage requirements.

The advocates, represented by California Rural Legal Assistance and the Public Interest Law Project, called on Chhabria to issue a firmer order “primarily to prevent future systemic violations” of the injunction. The judge declined to do so.

The city, in a November response, noted that only two of the arrests or citations documented by the homeless advocates were for camping violations. Others were told to leave encampments for reasons such as blocking access or causing fire hazards, and the city argued that “this can hardly be characterized as systemic violation” of Chhabria’s order.

Santa Rosa, in an October filing, also bemoaned the “repeating ’damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ loop” that has complicated homeless enforcement since the coronavirus hit: Encampments are initially allowed to grow to avoid spreading COVID-19; the city closes encampments when it decides they’ve reached a tipping point of public health and safety; and then a new encampment begins elsewhere.

“What then, the Court may ask, is the City doing to end this cycle?” Santa Rosa stated in its November brief. “This is difficult.”

The city outlined the myriad steps it’s taking to address homelessness, including spending about $3.4 million on annual programs and an additional $7.3 million on special initiatives spurred by the pandemic. Santa Rosa also has placed dozens of homeless people in hotel rooms to make up for the capacity lost by spacing out beds in Samuel L. Jones Hall, the largest local shelter. The city also created its first sanctioned encampment outside the Finley Community Center and will soon open an 8,000-square-foot tented structure outside Sam Jones Hall to accept up to 60 people.

Santa Rosa noted that it is “blessed with a mild climate” and “cursed with inadequate affordable housing” while being “generally regarded as a community more accommodating than others to the challenges facing those experiencing homelessness.”

For advocates like Finegan, the outdoor tented structure near Sam Jones is a step in the right direction. But for her, it’s also only a “Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

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

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