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Santa Rosa begins clearing homeless camps under Highway 101

Santa Rosa authorities Wednesday began rousting about 90 homeless people living in several large encampments that cropped up at Highway 101 underpasses in the city over the past several months.

City officials ordered people to leave from underpasses stretching from Third Street to College Avenue. Signs blocked off roads to traffic, and boxes filled with personal belongings lined sidewalks as residents packed up and left.

They had been alerted multiple times in the past few weeks that the sweeps would be occurring, said David Gouin, Santa Rosa housing and community services director, noting the operation would continue Thursday.

But some residents, like Stephen Floyd, only learned about the eviction Wednesday.

“It sucks to constantly have to be f—ing unsure of where to go,” said Floyd, 33, who lived at the underpass on College Avenue. “You almost never sleep in the same spot twice.”

The sweeps mark the largest and most high-profile effort to clear tent cities since late January, when Sonoma County removed nearly 300 homeless living along a 2-mile stretch of the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa.

”It’s just depressing,“ Floyd said of the city removing homeless encampments. ”It gives no sense of safety.“

Thirty people had accepted housing assistance offers from the city by Wednesday afternoon, Gouin said. Among them, 26 were going to the city temporary camp near the Finley Community Center, and the remaining four were going to Sam Jones Hall homeless shelter.

City workers asked residents who declined housing assistance offers to stay in touch in case they change their minds, Gouin said.

Nikki Ell, 25, had lived at the Fifth Street underpass for a couple of months. She said she would likely to go the Finley center on Thursday, but planned to stay with her mom in Guerneville in the meantime.

Ell used to live at the sprawling encampment along the Rodota trail before the county cleared it. She said it was difficult and tiring to move around the city so frequently. Every time she relocates she loses belongings and gets separated from friends.

“It feels like they don’t have any heart,” she said of Santa Rosa officials.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised local government officials to allow homeless people to stay in their encampments. But as the camps under Highway 101 greatly expanded, the city became more concerned about the public health conditions of the camps.

“There was trash (and) debris,” Gouin said. “We had to make a decision: Does the health condition of the encampments supersede the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control? And we concluded yes.”

The camp clearing had been slated to begin weeks ago, but was delayed last week at the request of Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase over coronavirus concerns. Earlier, demonstrations protesting racism and police brutality got in the way.

Last week, two individuals released from the Sonoma County Jail who had pending COVID-19 test results spent at least two recent nights at one of the city camps underneath the Highway 101, Gouin said. Both individuals ended up testing positive for COVID-19, so the city postponed the eviction again on Mase’s advice so area public health workers could test the homeless living in the city camps for the virus. Everyone tested negative, but the health officer said Tuesday testing and retesting would continue even after the underpasses are cleared.

No one was arrested Wednesday on charges related to homeless sweeps, Gouin said, but 16 people were arrested on charges of outstanding warrants, probation violations and drug-related offenses. The city also had to tow four vehicles that were inoperable.

After the camps have been cleared, city crews will remove any biohazards and trash left behind in the area.

Kathleen Finigan, an activist and member of grassroots group Homeless Action, called the Santa Rosa homeless clearing operation “a whack-a-mole game” that’s been going on for years. She said homeless people are among the “most vulnerable,” and she worried how evictions during the pandemic will affect their health.

“This is absolutely not anything new — evictions happening when people have no place to go,” Finigan said. “It’s just breaking my heart.”

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