Santa Rosa homeless camp along Joe Rodota Trail the topic of raucous meeting
One person was kicked out, another flipped off a speaker and an elected official cussed about bathrooms during a cacophonous hearing Tuesday on a homeless encampment that has strained government resources and challenged leaders’ ability to work together and craft solutions.
Equal parts activists and concerned homeowners and business owners filled the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting room for what was supposed to be a simple update on the swollen and growing homeless camp along the Joe Rodota Trail. By the end, county leaders were calling for bold, innovative solutions and urged staff to help stake a path forward before the year’s end.
More than 10% of the 8½-mile trail between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol has become home to more than 140 campsites and upward of 170 people, according to the latest estimates from the county’s Community Development Commission. Debate hinged on the rights of campers and the rights of nearby homeowners and business owners, something Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said was a false dichotomy.
“I would hope we can recognize our common humanity, our common frustration, and use that to galvanize us around solutions,” she said.
As the camp has grown, outreach has reached unprecedented levels, with five teams from the Community Development Commission, numerous resources from Catholic Charities, the Committee on the Shelterless, Reach for Home and more. These teams work to establish relationships and offer alternative places to stay, among other efforts.
Through it all, the specter of another sweep looms while the county balances restrictions to enforcement arising from a lawsuit, a preliminary injunction and a subsequent agreement with homeless advocates related to the county’s handling of a prior homeless camp.
Hopkins called that agreement, which establishes protocols before the county can initiate sweeps, a potential benefit for the county.
“You can look at it as a barrier or a protection - a codification of humanity,” Hopkins said. “I welcome barriers that say we need to have a solution.”
Supervisors advocated for numerous sanctioned encampments interspersed in unincorporated Sonoma County, a county-built homeless shelter and a place for people to use the toilet.
“I’m ready to see proposals,” Supervisor James Gore said. “If you want to bring toilets, bring toilets.”
Hopkins’ solution is more conversation, including with the newly formed Rodota Trail encampment advocacy group Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, a two-wheeled alternative to the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, the group that gathered more than 1,000 ?signatures calling for a sweep of the homeless camp.
One of the squeaky wheels was kicked out of the meeting while shouting about another petition. As the woman, Carolyn Epple, left, she kicked off a “Game of Thrones”-style “shame” chant.
Board Chairman David Rabbitt went back and forth with activists. But he had the microphone for the final word, after first offering that he believes the county should build its own shelter, and that it should be innovative and that he also doesn’t know where the county will get the money.
“Nobody should question the empathy or the compassion of this board,” Rabbitt said.
As recently as two weeks ago, a sweep was within sight of county leaders. Numbers at the camp had dwindled following evacuations related to the Kincade fire. Smoke blanketed Santa Rosa and the encampment a couple of times during the more than weeklong inferno.
In order to close down a camp, officials are required to ensure residents are given options for adequate alternatives. They’re notified before the sweep, and police are called to clear the area if necessary.
But an erroneous email sent Monday afternoon from Hopkins’ office confirming a sweep in the next couple of weeks helped inflame passions. Hopkins later clarified that the email was sent in error and was based on outdated information.
Local activist Kathleen Finigan said she wore black in protest of supervisors, saying they haven’t made the right decisions when it comes to the encampment.
“I’m furious,” she said in a phone interview before the meeting, referring to the prospect of a coming sweep of the encampment. “And I’m too old for this.”
Homeowners and business owners are weary, too, with many speaking of lost business, plunging property values and break-ins they blame on those at the encampment.
A 12-foot, concrete wall separates Shelly Radke’s condominium from the Joe Rodota Trail, but it doesn’t keep out the stench, she said during the public comment portion of the board meeting. She doesn’t think people should be allowed to camp on the trail. Citing her daughter’s heroin addiction, she said the only thing that will keep some people off the street is housing that allows drug use.