New maps reveal extent of homeless problems in Santa Rosa
Santa Rosa Police Officers Jason Brandt and Brian Sinigiani sat in a police van by the Fifth Street underpass during a weekly Wednesday morning homeless encampment cleanup. Those living on the street knew the officers by name, and the officers knew theirs, their addictions and their stories.
Brandt and Sinigiani estimated there are more than 200 chronically homeless in downtown Santa Rosa with whom they are on a first name basis. Nearly all have been offered services, they said.
“We're trying to take away all of the excuses and break down the barriers to get them off the street,” Sinigiani said. “We're really social workers with a law enforcement aspect.”
Sinigiani and his partner are among the top sources of referrals to Catholic Charities' Homeless Outreach Services Team. But they take the law seriously and aren't afraid to make arrests and write citations. Brandt said he makes more arrests now than he did while working patrol.
“Our goal is not to arrest people and put them in jail,” said Brandt. “We're trying to correct bad behavior and get them out of the cycle.”
The two officers' interactions with homeless people are now being tracked by the city, part of an effort to understand just how much time police officers and firefighters spend responding to calls involving homelessness - and whether there are better ways to solve the problem.
To get a handle on the amount of police and fire resources being dedicated to homelessness in the city, police officers, firefighters and medical responders began tagging calls for services as “homeless-related incidents” last August. The data is used to create maps - which can be viewed by the public online - showing where homeless problems are concentrated in the city.
“If we can't measure the problem, it's hard to know how best to allocate resources,” said Lt. John Snetsinger, who oversees the downtown team. “Around the city 50 percent of our officers' time is unallocated and they spend a lot of that time dealing with homeless issues.”
Since homeless-related incidents began to be fully recorded, 230 - or 33 percent - of the 686 average monthly arrests are of people who self-identified as homeless, Snetsinger said. This corresponds with the population of Sonoma County Jail, where the Sheriff's Office has reported that nearly a third of the inmates are homeless.
So far this year, 11 percent of the 13,423 medical and fire calls in Santa Rosa were homeless-related. The vast majority, 993 calls, were for medical problems.
This has led to a disproportionate number of homeless people entering not just the county jail, but the Memorial Hospital emergency room as well.
Beyond the numbers, the visible impacts of homelessness are clear throughout the city.
Outside the van where Brandt and Sinigiani sat during the sidewalk cleanup at the Fifth Street underpass, homeless residents picked up their belongings off the sidewalk and crews from the Santa Rosa Department of Public Works swept up the refuse left behind.
Workers with Catholic Charities' HOST program spoke with those who found shelter at the underpass and offered services yet again to those they've grown to know over the months.
Everyone knew the drill, knew their roles: move belongings, clean the street, offer services. There are plenty of services - no homeless person in Santa Rosa goes hungry or without clothing, but there's not enough beds even if people wanted to get off the street.
Brandt and Sinigiani were driving a van, as opposed to their normal cruiser or electric motorcycles, for what they began to refer to, in jest, as a “homeless safari.” They regularly take the media, bureaucrats and elected officials on tours for a ground-level view of homelessness in the city - all trying to understand the size and the scope of the issue.
But there's a growing feeling among Santa Rosa residents, city officials and police that to break the cycle of homelessness, the growing normalcy must also be broken.
Santa Rosa dedicates $1.8 million annually to homeless services, a police substation, six officers - including Brandt and Sinigiani - and a sergeant to tackle homeless-related issues in the city. And while the number of people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County has been trending down, they have been concentrating in downtown Santa Rosa.
Snetsinger hopes tracking the number of homeless-related incidents that draw responses from the police and fire departments will help target social services and law enforcement resources to break the status quo.
The city of Santa Rosa has used the new data, and the corresponding geographic coordinates, to create a “heat map” displaying the locations of homeless-related incidents in the city.