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Santa Rosa officials evict Roseland homeless camp residents

Construction workers in small Bobcat loaders maneuvered between tents and piles of debris at the large homeless encampment in Roseland Thursday, part of a planned eviction that affected up to 75 remaining residents at the Sebastopol Road site in southwest Santa Rosa.

Carpets, wooden pallets, cinder blocks and belongings left behind were hauled away after 8 a.m., when homeless advocates and members of the Santa Rosa fire and police departments converged to begin clearing out the people still occupying the camp. Established on county land in late 2015, the camp behind the Dollar Tree store at its peak was home to as many as 140 people.

“To get back on your feet out here is, it’s not easy,” said Amanda Friedman, 38, who with her husband had been living in the camp for about four months. “It’s definitely doable, but it’s not an easy feat out here, to go from homeless to being in a place, especially as a couple.”

Friedman sat along the nearby Joe Rodota Trail with the couple’s possessions stored in black plastic bags, bins and milk crates. Her 1-year-old pit bull, Little Mama, was curled up in the sun while her husband rode off on a bicycle to scout another location for them to pitch a tent.

The camp was erected in November 2015 under the approval of the county’s Community Development Commission, which owns the Roseland site and is overseeing plans to redevelop it as a mixed-use housing and commercial hub.

Two weeks ago, homeless advocates persuaded a federal judge in San Francisco to block a previous eviction attempt to give residents, especially those with disabilities, more time to find other accommodations. Before that period ended Thursday, the number of residents had dropped to about 90 people, said Jennielyn Holmes, senior director of shelter and housing programs at the nonprofit Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

Since the group launched a focused effort at the camp in March, 51 of the former residents have been placed in shelters, including 27 people in the past three days, Holmes said. Six others have secured rooms at The Palms Inn, the former Santa Rosa motel converted to single-room occupancy housing. Housing plans for five more residents were in the works Thursday night. Work on shelter and hotel placements was set to continue today, Holmes said.

Throughout the morning, Catholic Charities staff members conducted outreach to residents, offering space at nearby shelters. Many members of the encampment, including Friedman, reported being in and out of Sam Jones Hall and the Redwood Gospel Mission, with some opting not to go back.

Some minor protests took place among camp residents, but most complied with the request to leave, taking away their tents and belongings in shopping carts and stacked milk crates. Though guaranteed short-term accommodations by homeless service providers, many residents and their advocates voiced concerns about where they’d wind up next.

“It’s been a terrible challenge,” said Kathleen Finnegan, a member of the Homeless Action advocacy group. “Where can they go? What are they supposed to do?”

Michelle Behrens, who has lived in the camp since last December, said she and others would rather not have to live in a tent encampment. But she said she’d rather live in a tent than a shelter like Sam Jones Hall, which she said is too chaotic and frightening for some.

Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission, said shelters are a first step toward getting people placed in more permanent housing with supportive behavioral health and medical services. But that process can’t begin without first getting people into the shelters.

“It’s a pathway to permanent housing,” said Van Vliet. “We want them in the system because that’s the best way to get them into permanent housing.”

Still, homeless advocates said the county does not have an adequate stock of housing available for such purposes and they fear even those who have chosen to go into a shelter will be out on the streets in the future. Advocates contended that closing the encampment was a violation of residents’ civil rights because they have nowhere else to go.

Police were called to several locations in southwest Santa Rosa Thursday on reports that groups of homeless residents were seeking to settle on unoccupied land.

Santa Rosa police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf said clearing the area of tents, debris and garbage would likely take more than a day to complete. He said the Community Development Commission had not given police a strict deadline to enforce.

“There is no hard deadline,” Wolf said. “Right now we’re really here more to maintain order than to do enforcement.”

But Alicia Roman, a Santa Rosa attorney who’s on the legal team representing the encampment residents, said the bulldozers and large police presence were being used as a way of intimidating camp residents.

She said city and county officials should be more aggressive about finding permanent housing, and until they do, sanction another camp at a suitable location.

“While housing is being built, let’s have a sanctioned encampment,” she said, adding that more units like the ones at The Palms Inn need to be built.

Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed to this report.

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