Lawsuit filed to block ouster of Santa Rosa homeless camps

Homeless advocates argue that forcing people out of their camps in southwest Santa Rosa without providing them an alternative would be unconstitutional.|

Homeless advocates filed a lawsuit Friday to block Sonoma County and Santa Rosa from shutting the two large encampments that have grown in southwest Santa Rosa, arguing that forcing people out of their camps without providing an acceptable alternative would be unconstitutional.

The county has given homeless people until Tuesday to leave the two tent villages on Sonoma County Community Development Commission land behind the Dollar Tree store in Roseland.

The suit sets up a high-profile showdown between homeless advocates, who argue that local governments are doing too little to help people in need, and agencies that say they are trying to provide housing for the homeless but must close the camps because of safety concerns and future plans for the site.

“We’re not saying that everyone needs to stay there forever,” said Jeffery Hoffman, with California Rural Legal Assistance in Santa Rosa. “What we’re saying is we need to figure out a way to accommodate everybody in a fashion that works.”

A tent village originally took root on the site in 2015. The number of residents has grown to about 100 people since Santa Rosa began clearing out other longtime homeless camps and the October wildfires ravaged parts of the city.

County officials want to clear out the camps to move forward with a redevelopment project that envisions a 175-unit apartment complex, a public plaza and more. In advance of the shutdown, the county has been operating a housing navigation center on the property in an effort to find housing and other services for the residents.

But the lawsuit filed Friday contends those efforts have been insufficient, especially when it comes to people with disabilities. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by a group of attorneys with experience representing the powerless.

Melissa Morris and Michael Rawson with the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland, Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman and Hoffman filed the lawsuit on behalf of five residents of the camps and the advocacy group Homeless Action.

“The forced eviction and arrest of the residents of the village without being given a legal location to live and sleep violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment,” Roman said in a statement. “Seizing and destroying personal property violates their rights to be free from unlawful searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.”

County officials contend that allowing the homeless to remain in the camp does them a disservice.

“Occupants of the encampment face serious health and safety risks by remaining on the site, particularly exposure to the elements and communicable diseases,” the Sonoma County Community Development Commission said in a statement. “The Commission has made resources available through the Navigation Center to provide adequate housing and property storage options for all occupants of the encampment, including those with disabilities.”

Local homeless activists, including those with Homeless Action, have long urged local governments to offer more shelter beds and services. They argue that laws banning public camping, loitering and panhandling essentially criminalize homeless people and violate their civil rights.

Meanwhile local governments have gotten behind the “housing first” strategy that tries to ensure all public services for homeless people focus on housing them first and addressing underlying needs with supportive services thereafter.

Tension and resentments began building last summer when Santa Rosa cleared out a large encampment on the public right-of-way near Farmer’s Lane. The October wildfires exacerbated the city’s homelessness problem by forcing people out of hidden encampments that burned. The outpouring of public and private support for those who lost their homes in the fires, however, stoked resentments by some homeless advocates who noted a decided difference in the level of sympathy and support for those made homeless by the fires and those made homeless by other forces.

When the city in November sought to clear out another encampment under Highway 101 where it passes over Sixth Street, activists berated the City Council for the move and filmed police as they contacted people.

Many of the people who left that location ended up going to the Roseland camp, and the complaint claims some were urged to do so by police.

Aware of the impending deadline, the attorneys have been in discussions with the city and the county on a possible solution. They sought written assurances that all residents of the camps who wanted housing would be placed in situations suitable for their needs.

They also wanted to make sure Santa Rosa police would not issue citations, remove people’s belongings, or remove them from the property until their new housing is found.

But those talks broke down, and the group went forward with the suit. They want the court to put the brakes on Tuesday’s enforcement effort until the county and city can prove it is necessary and legal, Hoffman said.

The case may hinge on whether the county and city can demonstrate they have enough beds.

The complaints says that as of March 1, there were 1,847 homeless residents in the county but a mere 110 year-round beds available, a figure advocates question. The approximately 200 winter shelter beds in the county are due to close by the end of April, the complaint states.

The complaint argues that disabled people in Sonoma County are more likely to live outside, noting that 41 percent of those surveyed in 2017 identified as having a physical or mental disability.

It also contends the region’s housing crisis is exacerbating the problem, noting that a renter needs to make $63,000 to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment following the sharp increase in rents in the area.

The 2017 homeless census also noted that 71 percent of homeless people surveyed “cited affordable rent as the primary obstacle to obtaining permanent housing.”

The complaint claims that the county has not made good on its pledge to find suitable= housing for residents of the encampment, and that the city’s efforts to boost its own supply of beds has been insufficient.

“Since its declaration of a homeless emergency in 2016, the City has made approximately 50 to 75 new shelter beds available,” the complaint notes. “However, the addition of these beds is far short of what is necessary to meet the community’s need.”

The complaint describes in great detail how the camp’s residents would be impacted if police kick them out.

Deborah Drake is 57 and has lived in the camp since 2016. She suffers from a devastating litany of medical disabilities, including ovarian cancer, congestive heart failure, emphysema, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from domestic violence. Her son lives in the camp, as well, and takes care of her.

She is on a waiting list for Section 8 housing, but has been unable to get the income verification requested by the staff at the navigation center, according to the complaint.

“Ms. Drake has no other place to go at this time and is terrified of what may happen should the encampment be closed,” the complaint states.

It may not be sufficient for the county to make shelter beds available for people because many homeless have special needs that don’t make shelters suitable for them, Hoffman said.

“If you are not able to accommodate somebody, then you shouldn’t be able to punish them for not being able to be accommodated,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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