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Santa Rosa plans to evict sprawling homeless encampment in Fremont Park

Santa Rosa is making plans to evict members of the city’s latest sprawling homeless encampment.

Early next week, the city will begin relocating roughly 100 residents living in Fremont Park, a 1.7-acre plaza between Fourth and Fifth streets, just a few blocks east of downtown.

Citing “the size and scope” and the risk posed to the health and safety of campers and the surrounding neighborhood, Dave Gouin, housing and community services director, said Friday the city would follow the same steps taken to empty earlier homeless encampments. The most recent city sweeps involved people living under Highway 101 overpasses in the downtown corridor and on Corporate Center Parkway in west Santa Rosa.

The village in the park, which is also known as Cancer Survivors Plaza, includes about 30 tents and makeshift shelters, plus a collection of distressed RVs parked on Fifth Street. The encampment has grown “several times over” since late June, when the city relocated homeless people from below the highway, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf said.

“I’ve literally stepped over needles,” said Donna Johnsen, who lives 2½ blocks from the park now mainly occupied by homeless people. “I’ve witnessed some pretty crazy things. Yesterday, I had a gentleman screaming at and kicking a tree in my front yard.”

The park, and now encampment, sit across from Santa Rosa Middle School, where her son is a student.

In the past, her children had felt “very comfortable” in the park and its environs, but “now it’s just not safe,” Johnsen said.

Keenly aware of the public health hazards that lead city officials to take action, residents of the park on Thursday went to great lengths to collect and cart away their trash. They got lots of help from nonprofits such as SAVS, Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, Clean River Alliance and Squeaky Wheel Bicycle Coalition, among others.

But that wasn’t the only reason to keep the place tidy, one resident of the encampment pointed out.

“I don’t want to be waking up to some garbage,” said the man, a 30-something, unemployed construction worker in a white tank top. “That’s why I pick up.”

The man lived with his wife in a lean-to in the middle of the park. He’d been there since the beginning of July, when he was evicted from his lodgings in Guerneville.

“We don’t want publicity,” said the man, when asked for his name. “We don’t want our pictures taken. We just want to be left alone. We don’t come around taking pictures of you in your brick houses,” he said, employing a metaphor from a children’s story, “so don’t come around trying to blow down our straw houses, you know?”

Sgt. Wolf agreed that “a portion of the population is trying to keep it clean. But there’s also a large number of people who aren’t.”

He has received “daily” complaints from area residents and business owners, including loud music, barking dogs, fistfights, drug use, people from the encampment trespassing on nearby properties, and public defecation and urination.

Like Johnsen, Josh Gordon acknowledged the tragedy of homelessness, the near intractability of the problem in Santa Rosa.

“I do not pretend to know what the solution is,” said Gordon, who manages a business across from the park. “But this has become a safety issue.

“Almost every single day, I’ve seen a physical fight. I’ve had hypodermic needles in the walkway right up to my office.”

From his desk, he can sometimes see people going to the bathroom “in the middle of the street.” On one occasion, a trespasser walked right up to the building and relieved himself “against our window.”

Residents of the encampment wouldn’t be forced to those extremes, said Heather Jackson of Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, if the city had provided more than one portable toilet. She has written city officials, asking for portable toilets, dumpsters and handwashing stations, “but basically got bulls--- responses.”

Even if the city feared providing such facilities would somehow condone the encampment, said Rochelle Roberts, also of Sonoma Acts of Kindness, officials should provide them “for the sake of the businesses and the neighbors around there, the people that have to drive and walk by.”

On Thursday afternoon, Jackie Nappi stood at a table serving a healthy lunch to residents: potatoes, squash, cucumber salad, a cookie bar and Gatorade.

“We’re here every day,” said Nappi, who works for nonprofit Sonoma County Applied Villages Services. “We feed them and give them services — everything from sleeping bags to, well, yesterday I braided someone’s hair.”

When Nappi started with the nonprofit three months ago, she recalled, “this was just a little encampment. Very small, not many people. Once they swept Sixth Street and Corporate (Center Parkway), a lot of people had nowhere to go.”

Sixty-something Ann, whose disposition matched her cheerful tie-dyed T-shirt, sat knitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk. She’d been staying at Sonoma State University until the college stopped housing homeless individuals. Now she sleeps in her car. Pat Preston, known around the park as St. Patrick, owns the barge-like Winnebago on Fifth Street. He’d been parked on Corporate Way until he was sent packing a few weeks ago.

“The night before they kicked us out,” said Preston, standing astride his mountain bike, “they took the porta-potties away.”

“There’s all this county property that’s not being used,” Preston said. His solution: “Designate some of it as a homeless shelter.”

Better yet, he said, “call it a refugee camp. Refugees at least get a toilet and water.”

“I wish they’d stop moving us around,” he said.

That was Thursday, the same day city officials decided this encampment’s days were numbered.

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

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