Santa Rosa groups help homeless register for $1,200 government stimulus checks

In oppressive Thursday afternoon heat and with little fanfare, they broke through the $100,000 barrier.

Under a pair of tents pitched on Challenger Way in west Santa Rosa, a cadre of do-gooders helped vulnerable people overcome the small challenges preventing them from collecting a large windfall from Uncle Sam.

“Keep an eye out for an email from the IRS in the next couple days,” Azura Star told a 30-something man in a flat-brimmed ballcap sitting across the table from her.

Star is a volunteer for the Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, a Santa Rosa group of homeless advocates. Working with three other groups - Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, Mask Sonoma and DSA Northbay - they’ve spent several weeks signing up their “shelterless neighbors” to receive the $1,200 stimulus payments most eligible people already received from the U.S. government. For people experiencing homelessness, said Squeaky Wheel founder Marcos Ramirez, seemingly minor challenges - charging their phones, accessing the Internet and figuring out a mailing address to which the feds can send the check - can loom as “massive” obstacles.

The hurdles were methodically removed Thursday at the coalition’s fifth “Stimulus sign-up” event, during which they’ve registered vulnerable people on the streets for just over $100,000 in refunds, $1,200 at a time.

“I’m horrible at the Internet, and I don’t like cellphones,” said Kristin Loughlin, after successfully registering for her refund. “For them to help me with this was beautiful.”

After completing his registration, Deonytae Davis declared his intent to use his $1,200 to pay monthly rent at an actual trailer park. Like Loughlin and others who signed up Thursday, he lives in his mobile home near Challenger Way. Since Sonoma County issued a stay-at-home order on March 17, this office park has turned into a kind of unsanctioned trailer court, its streets lined with 40 or so mobile homes. For the 90 or so residents now living here, the city has provided two dumpsters, three portable toilets and two hand-washing stations.

Since the county cleared a large homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail in late January, some of the displaced have ended up in temporary shelters at Los Guilicos Village in Sonoma Valley. Some high-risk homeless people have moved into dormatory rooms at the Rohnert Park campus of Sonoma State University. Others now live in tents in a parking lot at Santa Rosa’s Finley Community Center.

Many more, Ramirez said, have taken up residence in “the nooks and crannies of the county.” A good number are camped under the Highway 101 overpasses in the downtown corridor of Santa Rosa, where they are protected, they think, by an injunction issued last summer by a federal judge limiting sweeps of the city’s homeless encampments. Moreover, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has advised local governments to not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19.

The city’s concern for public health and safety can override the judge’s injunction and those CDC recommendations, which is why Santa Rosa police have recently been warning homeless people camped under the overpasses that they will be cited and arrested.

On Tuesday, Ramirez said, police told homeless people they were coming back for them at 6 a.m. Wednesday. “Everybody was on high alert,” he said, “but they never came.”

The city, it turned out, had delayed its action at the request of the county health department, which recently learned that some people with COVID-19 had spent time in those encampments around Highway 101. Sweeping those areas has been paused, according a statement from city officials on Thursday, to allow the county to test “individuals in those areas.”

The city expects to resume its “original cleanup plans under the Highway 101 overpasses” no later than June 24, according to the statement.

Back at Challenger Way, Ramirez chatted with a man whose RV needed some help. To prepare for a dispersal order they feel is inevitable, the Squeaky Wheel Coalition and its partners are making sure that everyone’s mobile home is actually mobile.

So Ramirez, an engineer and artist who also has some chops as an automobile mechanic, helped install a new battery, alternator and serpentine belt in the vehicle of a man whose RV wouldn’t start.

The parts cost around $250, and were purchased with money raised by the Squeaky Wheel. The stakes aren’t low, Ramirez said. If someone is ordered to go, but can’t because their engine won’t turn over, “their home could be impounded.”

“It’s a given,” Loughlin said of city police orders to clear out. “They’re coming.”

That saddens Loughlin, who has come to like this pop-up community. “My neighbors are amazing,” she said.

If she is forced to move, at least she’ll have $1,200 to soften the blow.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @ausmurph88.

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